Something is wrong with Adam Wainwright.
When Waino floated his fastball mid-80’s with regularity last Friday against Atlanta, the alarm bells were sounded. It was revealed that Wainwright was dealing with elbow soreness that caused the drop in velocity. On little more than grit and guile, Wainwright held the Braves to one run over five innings, improving his record to 12-5 on the season.
One start later Thursday, the velocity remained dormant, and this time Wainwright didn’t get off quite so easy. Fooled by nothing coming out of Wainwright’s right hand, the Pirates pounced for seven hits and five runs in three innings, knocking the righty from the game early.
Of course, being a Wainwright start, the Cardinal bats inevitably provided absurd run support to take him off the hook. With the win, the Cardinals improved to a stunning 15-8 in Wainwright starts on the year; the reality remains that his depleted arsenal is simply not sustainable.
So after Thursday’s games concluded, Derrick Goold reported that Wainwright was headed back to St. Louis to meet with team doctors about his arm. One could make the argument that enough red flags should have been raised from his previous start for this step to have been taken then, rather than risk further damaging the elbow. Because it’s Wainwright, it’s understandable why the Cardinals didn’t take that approach.
If Wainwright were Carlos Martinez, he wouldn’t have tried to gut through elbow soreness for one start, much less two. He wouldn’t have been allowed to–and there’s reason for that.
Even before this injury cropped up–and despite the team’s record in his starts–Wainwright already hadn’t been himself this season. Though he would hate to have it mentioned, Wainwright turns 36 at the end of August. That’s not to say that he’s definitively reached the twilight of his pitching career, but objectively, he has been battling all year–really, he’s battled dating back to last season. Placing injuries aside, it’s already been an uphill climb, the statistics a shadow of what they once were.
Now consider the possibility he has a bum elbow, again. Wainwright has already had one Tommy John surgery (2011), and because of where he’s at in his career, would certainly prefer to avoid another.
Watching him flip those decidedly not-fastballs and looping breaking pitches across the plate the last two starts, it’s tough to feel this issue will resolve itself quickly. When most of your "fastballs" are clocked slower than what batters see on changeups from the also-injured Trevor Rosenthal, it can be assumed there’s something amiss.
If it’s already toast, how much worse could it get?
Pitching is about adjustments, after all. Wainwright knows this as well as anyone. So with only a fraction of the velocity he normally musters, Wainwright tried to battle through, and the Cardinals gave him the opportunity to try and make it work.
It worked for one start. It didn’t the next. By flying him back to St. Louis early, the Cardinals could be pulling the plug on the experiment. Would this be a decision made out of concern that continuing to pitch might further damage Wainwright’s elbow?
If so, why now instead of after the Atlanta start? The concerning physical trends were already present. Those haven’t changed–only the amount of runs Wainwright surrendered as a result of them.
Perhaps the decision was made for a different reason, one with less regard for the degree to which Thursday may have exacerbated the injury. A choice made not from a physical standpoint, but a competitive one.
The Cardinals have options in the organization, young pitchers ready for an opportunity to prove their worth at the next level. If those pitchers could offer St. Louis a better start next week against the Padres, it should happen, regardless of the health-related gambles Wainwright and the Cardinals are willing to take in a pennant race.
Whether good news or bad awaits Wainwright in St. Louis, the Cardinals will have plenty of time for ceremony and sentiment–even later this season, if it comes to that. For the next few weeks, though, they need to employ the roster most capable of pushing this team to October.