Stephen Strasburg’s last start of the season came nearly six weeks ago, and the Nationals exited the postseason – with Strasburg on the bench – last Friday. Still, even with the benefit of separation, there is almost no escaping the issue that, for much of baseball, defined Washington’s season.
Welcome to St. Louis, where in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Thursday, the Cardinals will start a pitcher, Adam Wainwright, who had ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow on Feb. 28, 2011 – the same surgery Strasburg had nearly six months earlier.
When Wainwright records the first out of the first inning against the San Francisco Giants, he will have thrown 207 innings this season. That, of course, is more than 48 more innings than Strasburg pitched before the Nationals, following a plan they set forth in spring training, shut him down.
Initially, the Cardinals talked about limiting Wainwright in his first season back from the procedure. Wainwright said Wednesday he wanted no part of that.
“I think that was the team protecting itself, and if I did start to tire in the middle of the season they could back me off a little bit,” Wainwright said. “But a funny thing about being a competitor, you know your body better than anybody else. One hundred fifty innings to me is — I mean, the amount of seasons I’ve had before, I felt like I was seasoned better than 150 innings, whether I was coming off injury or not.”
That is a key point of comparison, Wainwright said. He is 31, and his first full season in the majors was 2006. He entered this season with experience as the closer on the 2006 World Series champs and with 119 major league starts. That experience helped inform him about his own body, and therefore helped the Cardinals determine the proper course, which could have been altered during the season depending on how Wainwright felt.
“If I had been a much younger pitcher, whatever I said probably didn’t have much clout,” Wainwright said. “But I did know my body, and I had been seasoned. …
“And I’ll tell you what, right now: You have to learn how to pitch when you’re feeling bad or feeling tired or your arm is hanging. If you don’t learn to pitch in those moments, you’re doing yourself a disservice and your team a disservice. There’s valuable lessons to be learned battling through that stuff. I learned a lot about my arm and about my stuff and about my competitiveness this year pitching.”
Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said Wainwright was helped by a “flawless rehab.” But unlike in Washington – where General Manager Mike Rizzo did not waver from his belief that limiting Strasburg to roughly 160 innings was the right move – the Cardinals maintained a flexible approach with Wainwright.
“He went into spring training where we were just going to sort of evaluate how things went sort of outing by outing,” Mozeliak said. “As he continued to have success — look stronger, get stronger — there was never any temptation to say, ‘Wait a minute, we should slow this down.’
“I think a lot’s being made, especially in Washington, about games started. We really look at it more of a pitch-count issue and try to determine how stressful each inning is, and have that factor into our pitching coach and manager’s assessment during each outing.”
In his 32 regular-season starts, in which he went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA, Wainwright threw 3,091 pitches – or 96.6 per start. Strasburg, who made 28 starts and went 15-6 with a 3.14 ERA, threw 2,607 pitches – or 93.1 per outing.
Mozeliak said Wainwright’s status as an established veteran with a mature body gave him more input.
“I do think veteran players do understand the day-to-day grind, and what’s expected of them physically,” Mozeliak said. “So sure, engaging them in the conversation, making them part of the conversation in determining how to use them makes a lot of sense. I do think younger players tend to always want to give you the answer you want to hear versus maybe how they truly feel.”
Wainwright’s last start came in Game 5 of the Cardinals’ division series against the Nationals, and he lasted just 2 1/3 innings, his shortest outing of the year. He attributes that, though, to poor execution, not fatigue.
“My arm feels probably better than it usually does at this point in the year, for whatever reason – whether it be all the rehab or whatnot,” Wainwright said. “But certainly, the beginning of the season was a grind for me, a really tough stretch where I didn’t pitch well and my arm was pretty much hanging. I’m well past that now. My arm feels great.”