SAN FRANCISCO — When Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright last pitched in an elimination game, he turned in the best game of his career with a 3-1, complete-game victory over the Pirates.
He did not allow an extra-base hit, he walked only one and all four of his pitches were working. His fastball touched 95 mph in the fifth inning, and his curveball was so sharp that he threw it three times to the final batter and it produced three swings and misses. It was vintage Wainwright.
The Cardinals could use that version of Wainwright tonight in a win-or-go-home game against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park.
But they are not likely to get that Wainwright.
He has made no secret that he is working these days at less than 100 percent because of a tender right elbow, a not-unexpected byproduct of his heavy workload over the past three seasons. Since the start of 2012, his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright has worked 669 1/3 innings, the most in the majors.
He hasn’t lasted five innings in either of his postseason starts while giving up 17 hits and nine runs in nine innings. His cutter, arguably his best pitch, has been "flat," to use a scout’s description, and his fastball has barely climbed over 90 mph. After a 3-0 loss in Game 1, Wainwright said his arm felt much better than it had in Los Angeles but his mechanics were off. Still he admitted, "I’m not going to sit here and tell you my arm is 100 percent right now."
So the question becomes: Can Wainwright at less than full health send the National League Championship Series back to St. Louis for a Game 6 on Saturday?
Absolutely. No pitcher in the majors is better equipped to win without his best stuff. For one reason, he’s had a lot of practice. Think back to June. Wainwright threw seven shutout innings at Tampa Bay and afterward said he had been dealing with a head cold for a month and earlier had pitched with a bad back. His numbers after that start: 9-3 with a 2.15 ERA. And the next day Wainwright was in St. Louis for a cortisone shot to calm down tendinitis on what he called "a spot" on the backside of his elbow.
The shot helped and Wainwright soon was on his way to a 20-win season in which he put up a 2.38 ERA. As good as his numbers look, though, his season has included almost as many ups and downs as the overworked media elevator at Busch Stadium.
There was the great April and May when he was the Cy Young front-runner. Then the cortisone shot in June. He started and was beaten around in the All-Star Game. He went through a miserable August before winning NL Pitcher of the Month honors in September. And now, two subpar starts in the postseason. According to what the tall right-hander said Wednesday, perhaps it’s time to trend up again.
"I actually felt better after my last start than I did the day after I started against the Dodgers or (during) the first game against the Giants," he said. "I could have pitched as good or better the next day than I did the day I pitched, as weird as that sounds."
Wainwright believes Tuesday’s bullpen session will help sharpen his pitches and his command. While that might be based more on wishful hoping than anything, the side session should not hurt. For a finesse pitcher such as Wainwright, crispness and command are key and being able to work on his stuff should help his arm be better prepared for the Giants.
"The positives to take away were when your arm doesn’t feel the best, you need everything else to be locked in and your delivery to be sharp," he said. "My delivery was not sharp (in Game 1). Now my arm feels better and my delivery should be much sharper going forward, so it should be a much more polished pitcher you see on the mound."
Wainwright has not won a playoff game since his gem over the Pirates. He has lost four of his five starts with a 5.14 ERA, bringing him to 3-4 with a 3.63 ERA in 11 postseason starts.
"I don’t want to get a bad rap for not being a good playoff pitcher," said Wainwright, pointing out he was 4-0 in the postseason until last year’s NLCS. "That’s the time I want to shine the most. That’s the time that every pitcher wants to shine the most. I know I’m capable of doing that."
The Cardinals handed the Giants Games 3 and 4 because of defensive miscues. With San Francisco starting ace Madison Bumgarner, who shut out the Cardinals for 7 2/3 innings in a 3-0 Game 1 win, the Cardinals have an even smaller margin for mistakes. But still the course will be determined by the 6-foot-7 right-hander on the mound.
"Adam Wainwright is going to set the tone for us," manager Mike Matheny said. "Everybody’s got to follow suit and jump in and figure out a way to make it happen."
Wainwright admits it would be easier if his right arm was at full strength.
"I want to get back into throwing quality games in the postseason," he said. "You know, just have to have all my weapons out there with me preferably. If not, I’ll grind my way through it and find a way to make it happen. But it helps when you’ve got all your weapons."
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the arm that wields those weapons won’t be at its best.