Wainwright keeps dealing as one of game's elite arms
Cardinals' 32-year-old ace showing no signs of slowing down on mound
ST. LOUIS -- The Bulgarian-born cab driver was worried about the forecast for rain on Sunday.
"Has to hold off," he said in broken English, "Waino is pitching today. You don't want to lose a day he's supposed to pitch."
A baseball fan?
"It's St. Louis," the driver said. "You learn quickly here."
And Waino, as Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright is known, will tell anyone who listens that the learning process never ends.
At the age of 32 and already one of the game's elite starting pitchers, Wainwright is undergoing a makeover that is making him an even bigger challenge for National League hitters.
"It is," said Cards manager Mike Matheny, a former big league catcher, "a treat to watch him."
Well, a treat for the Cardinals and their fans. It's a challenge for the opposition.
Even with a sleeve on his right knee, which he twisted fielding a ground ball in his last start, Wainwright was dominating -- again -- on Sunday. He worked eight shutout innings in the Cardinals' 7-0 victory against the Pirates. Wainwright avenged his only loss of the season -- 2-1 at Pittsburgh earlier in the month -- and equaled a Cards club record by becoming the fourth pitcher in team history to win five April decisions.
About the only thing Wainwright didn't do was chalk up a complete game. That wasn't by choice.
"I didn't throw a fit about it," said Wainwright, "but I made [Matheny] work hard to shake hands."
As it was, Wainwright ran his current scoreless streak of 25 innings, longest current streak in the NL and one inning shy of the current streak for Martin Perez of Texas. Wainwright allowed only three singles, walked two, struck out seven and lowered his ERA to 1.20.
Oh, and another successful chapter to the revision of Wainwright that he has undertaken this season.
"A guy who has so many accomplishments in the game and he's not afraid to get better," said Matheny. "He has a different philosophy from when everyone faced him before so they have to think about [his approach] him now."
It's not like Wainwright was a mess and needed to find a way to resurrect his career.
The veteran is 103-58 with a 3.03 ERA in the regular season as a starting pitcher in the big leagues. Wainwright missed 2011 after Tommy John surgery, but he has won 19 games twice and 20 games once in the last four years in which he has pitched. He has finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting twice (2010 and '13) and third once ('09). Wainwright is a two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Wainwright, however, is convinced he can be better.
"I am doing things differently than I ever have," he said. "I am sinking the ball to both sides [of the plate]. I'm throwing my curveball at different speeds. I know by the reaction of the hitter whether to speed up or slow down. The slow curveball is a swing-and-miss pitch. The harder is for ground balls.
"I'm having fun. I'm enjoying baseball in a different light. I made a point in Spring Training. My total emphasis is on the result of the pitch I am throwing. I don't think about what guys have done against me in the past. I just think of what I need to do with that pitch. It gives me the edge."
Oh, and Wainwright wins, which he admits is the ultimate thrill of pitching.
"It means a lot to me," Wainwright said of the five wins in April. "I take a lot of pride in games won. People now think that doesn't mean a lot, but if you have all the stuff and are 0-34, who gives a dang? The game is about winning. It's about pitching deeper into games and getting wins to help the ball club."
It's about taking a regular turn. Wainwright has made 32 or more starts in each of his last four healthy seasons. It's about pitching innings. He has averaged 6.9 innings per start over those four years, plus the first five starts of this season. Wainwright has even struck out 200-plus batters in three of his last four healthy seasons, and he struck out 184 in 2012, the year he returned from the rehab for surgery.
And he shows no sign of slowing down.
"I'm having more fun pitching now than I ever had," Wainwright said. "It's such a chess match. I work extra hard to stay ahead. … I know in the past if I started to feel I have figured everything out, it starts to fall off. I'm not even trying to figure everything out now."
What he has done is develop "a master plan," and it is working.
"I can always hear the music," Wainwright said. "It's like a symphony. I want to continue to play the music."
The Cardinals are ready to dance to any tune Wainwright wants to play.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.