ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- It started with the same pomp and circumstance as always.
First, the Clydesdales took their stately trot around the outer dirt of Busch Stadium. Then came the Hall of Famers; a slow, steady stream of Cardinal greats being ferried in by convertibles. Brock. Gibson. Willie. Ozzie. Simmons. Sutter. McCarver. Herzog. Past Edmonds and La Russa and Torre until the trucks carrying the current players began their grand entrance.
Adam Wainwright has seen it all before. He’s thrown the first pitch as a a raucous sea of red roared in approval; a release of winter’s doldrums and the sound of baseball returning to St. Louis.
He’s felt it and seen it more than a dozen times, and Thursday was the fifth time he started the home opener, one less than Bob Gibson, who has thrown the most. It was a special moment, and one he kept circled in his datebook even when he went on the disabled list to start the year.
“I try to look up and enjoy a little bit of it,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for all those red jackets and I get out there on the field and I wanted to look up and see the crowd a little bit, feel that a little bit. Feel that emotion. Just see how excited the fans are. That kind of stuff gets me fired up.”
Wainwright is in the final year of his contract with the Cardinals, and the future is uncertain. He could get a victory lap, finish his run with another team, or call it a career after the final out of the season.
Perhaps it was that knowledge that had Busch buzzing in the electric moments before the first batter stepped in. Even with a team transitioning to younger faces, there was one of the franchise’s best pitchers christening the start of summer in St. Louis one more time.
It felt familiar. For some, it’s the only home opener scene they know. Yadier Molina took his spot behind the plate, and the battery mates prepared to start their 238th game together. The most in team history and 41 times more than the next closest pair, Gibson and McCarver, who threw and caught the ceremonial first pitch.
It was a nice parallel for history lovers. Two symbols of two wildly successful eras in franchise history reminding fans why they cling to their team like a religion.
With a breath, Wainwright took his familiar place with the crowd acutely aware they may not have this moment ever again.
If this was the last time, it wasn’t nearly long enough.
“I was a little disappointed not to pitch better in front of this crowd tonight,” Wainwright said after the 3-1 loss.
He lasted just 3.2 innings, laboring through 11 outs on 89 pitches. He was unsettled after the first inning, unable to command his fastball and constantly mired in deep counts.
He faced 20 hitters and ended up in full counts six times. He walked four and was eventually pulled after a throwing error extended an inning. He walked off to scattered applause, the crowd’s emotions having been sapped by a slogging game that would ultimately take three and a half hours and see the Cardinals muster just two hits.
“Pretty much the only pitch I was throwing effectively for strikes was my curveball. I had to go four seamer for awhile and then curveball,” Wainwright said. “[Hitters] couldn’t even offer at much.”
More concerning was the 36-year-old’s declining velocity throughout his outing.
In the first inning his four seam fastball sat around 92 miles per hour; by the fourth it was around 86. Wainwright’s velocity has been closely watched of late, as its decline has coincided with a precipitous drop in effectiveness for the veteran.
This time he says it was intentional.
“As soon as I got out of whack, I had to tone it back, dial it back a bit to get it back on the plate,” he explained.
Manager Mike Matheny echoed that explanation, pointing to the fact starter Carlos Martinez routinely takes several miles per hour off his pitches to add movement and control.
But fans were left wondering. What hours before had seemed like Wainwright’s just reward, a celebration of his tremendous career in St. Louis with the fans who love him, ended with a feeling of uncertainty. As fans left the stadium- many of them long before the final out- they did so with the resignation that perhaps the best version of that moment already happened.
Baseball returned to St. Louis after a long winter, and Adam Wainwright was once again the first face fans saw. It was supposed to be a return to normal.
Now we’re left wondering if this was Wainwright's new normal, and how much time he should get to prove it's not.