JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- A day after Carlos Martinez was announced as the Opening Day starter, Adam Wainwright took the mound for his second-to-last spring start.
After an ugly, 10-run beating at the hands of the Mets in his last outing, Wainwright was eager to reestablish the form that had him eyeing 20 wins earlier this month. He allowed five hits and a run in four innings, but found reassurance in his pitches.
“My cutter grip today was really much better,” he said, recalling how elusive comfort has been this spring. “Today the pitches that were 86, 87 miles per hour, those are cutters. Earlier in the spring they were 82, 83. So it’s getting back to where it needs to be.”
The improvement was evidenced by Wainwright’s reliance on the pitch, as he cut down on the number of curveballs Thursday in pursuit of controlling his secondary weapons.
“It was much better today. I still threw a couple loopy ones at the end where I wasn’t consciously thinking about throwing it properly, but that’s exactly why I wanted six starts. That’s exactly why I wanted to be prepared. I knew I had some stuff to work on,” he said.
As he’s rebuilt his repertoire, the Cardinals have taken care not to push him physically. Though he’s nearly two years removed from tearing his Achilles in Milwaukee, the effects of such a traumatic injury linger. Last season his lower body strength was lacking, which affected his landing as he finished his delivery. Instead of controlling his body all the way through the pitch, he would fall off to the first base side. That hurt his location along with the spin rates of his offspeed pitches. His cutter floated instead of cut and his curveball, instead of featuring a deep, diving break, was flat.
The team made sure he didn’t push too hard too fast this spring, especially in the areas that are pitching-adjacent; the idea being to protect his lower half as he rounds into regular season form.
“We’ve been careful about how much work he gets on the backfields with the physical training staff, the [pitcher fielding drills] and moving around, just to guard him a bit,” Matheny said. “There’s probably still some hesitancy. I think that’s just natural when you have something as dramatic as that sort of repair.
“We have time now, because he’s such a good athlete, to ramp that out to where he’s feeling more comfortable with the high speeds.”
His stronger lower half has given him comfort on the mound. It also exposed the problem of his altered grips, something that may have been overlooked had he not been able to discount leg strength as a potential cause of trouble. Now, he’s hyper aware of ball placement in his hand, and has a diagnosis checklist for missed pitches that begins with his grip.
“You can’t explain why it happens. It’s the same thing as a golf swing or any other sport. You go out there some days and it’s just different. You don’t know what happened. It’s good because when you constantly have to relearn yourself and relearn yourself, eventually you learn yourself really well,” he said.
Perhaps no pitcher in St. Louis knows himself better than Wainwright. A relentless student of film, the 35-year-old examines every pitch he throws. He remembers outings from years ago and often has a diagnosis for a bad day before clock strikes midnight.
But even those removed from the minutiae of each start can see a difference this spring. Wainwright’s pitches are sharper, and his conviction with them is stronger because of it.
“His stuff is better than it was a year ago, and that’s a great spot for us to be as a club,” Matheny said.
The veteran has one more outing, a rematch with the Mets, before the contests count. He’s hoping all the study, all the rediscovery, coalesces. He wants to feel like himself come April.
“What I want to do is go out and pitch the next game exactly mindset-wise, conviction-wise, like I would in the regular season. Arsenal-wise, everything needs to be coming together to complete the picture going into my opening start,” he said.