Wainwright insists he’s on track for a healthy season in 2015

Adam Wainwright is feeling so strong during recovery from last fall's surgery on his right elbow that he balked at any talk about reducing his workload in 2015.

Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — Adam Wainwright says recovery from last fall’s right elbow surgery is "going good."

"I started playing catch on the exact same day as I did last year," the Cardinals’ ace said Sunday morning during Day Two of the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up. "I’m on schedule. Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to proceed as I normally would."

Wainwright is feeling so strong that he balks at any talk about reducing his workload in 2015. "I’m fixed," he said. "I’ve got a bionic arm now, right."

He was at least half-joking about that last part, even if he wasn’t laughing. At this point, the only certainty regarding Wainwright’s right arm is that it includes the most scrutinized elbow in this part of the world. It was closely watched and greatly discussed most of last season even as Wainwright was putting up the best statistical season of his career, and the analysis figures to be just as diligent in 2015.

Wainwright won 20 games, pitched 227 innings and posted a career-low 2.38 ERA and secured his fourth top-three finish in the National League’s Cy Young voting. His strong season made him the J.G. Taylor Spink St. Louis Man of the Year, an award he was to be presented at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner Sunday night. That the 33-year-old right-hander was able to pitch so well despite the troubles caused by an ailing elbow was downright remarkable.

By the end of the postseason, Wainwright says he couldn’t screw the top off a jar because "anything that required by arm twisting didn’t really work." He also said, after sharing a story of his wife having to open a Sprite can for him: "My masculinity took a hit at the end of the year."

Wainwright still managed to win NL Pitcher of the Month honors in September, and went seven innings and allowed only two runs in his final outing of the season, a 6-3 loss to the Giants in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.

"I had my good games and bad," he said. "When my arm felt healthier, I pitched pretty good. When it didn’t, I didn’t pitch very well."

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Wainwright underwent arthroscopic surgery to trim a piece of cartilage from his right elbow shortly after the season, right around the time the club said he would not be undergoing surgery. The procedure was performed by George Paletta, who is no longer with the Cardinals but was their team physician in 2011 when he did Wainwright’s Tommy John. Wainwright went out of his way Sunday to explain away the apparent misconnect between the club and him.

"It wasn’t pinning one side of the training staff against the other," Wainwright said. "It was furthering the prognosis that was given to me (by the team) and taking it to someone who has been inside my arm and seen all the nooks and crannies in there. I want to make it clear that everybody is on the same team. It wasn’t me getting mad at one side and going somewhere else. I feel like that’s important to know that these doctors are doing an outstanding job for all of us."

Wainwright credited last year’s training staff with helping him feel strong enough to allow him to pitch as well as he did. He became such a frequent visitor to the training room that he joked, "I definitely won the training room rat award."

The woes with his arm began with a leg injury, believe it or not. Wainwright hyperextended his right knee in an early-season start at Citi Field when he slid awkwardly on a wet field trying to make a play on what would be his final out in a seven-inning, scoreless performance. After that start, Wainwright said, the ailments started. "If it wasn’t one thing, it was another," he said.

He explained why: "I compensated for (the sore knee) and ended up tweaking a little muscle in my forearm because I was having to take over more with my upper body. When I tweaked the muscle in my foreman, I had to throw a little different way and I ended up tweaking the back of my arm into a little bone bruise. When I got the bone bruise, I compensated for that and it was just back and forth, back and forth."

Yet somehow, he kept cranking out stellar starts. He shut out the Rays in St. Petersburg for seven innings on June 10 and the next day, was back in St. Louis for a cortisone shot to calm what he called a "very, very small spot" of inflammation on the back of his right elbow — not close to the ligament he had replaced in Tommy John surgery three years ago.

After missing just one start, he returned and made five more starts before the All-Star break, pitching at least seven innings in each and not giving up more than two runs in a any of them. He earned the start for the National League in the All-Star Game and was knocked around, then struggled out of the break. In his first 10 starts after the break, he went 3-5 with a 4.68 ERA.

But he rebounded by going 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA in five September starts. Then he struggled in his first two postseason starts, the arm bothering him enough that there was a little doubt whether he would even make his final start.

The main problem, Wainwright said, was not being able to fully extend his right arm to finish his four-seam fastball well enough to throw it inside to right-handed batters.

"You saw me throwing a lot of cutters and a lot of curveballs because I could get my arm to go this way fine," said Wainwright, miming a curveball delivery. "I just couldn’t get it to pronate all the way through."

He said the inability to put the finishing touch on his fastball was why he hit Yasiel Puig in the playoff opener, sparking an incident that led to a clearing of both benches. "I knew it was the right pitch, I couldn’t execute it," Wainwright said. "To Adrian Gonzalez’s point, I don’t normally hit people like that. I’m not normally hurt, either."

Pitching in a compromised state hurt more than his performance. It hurt his arm. "And because it was painful, the further I went, the more afraid it was going to hurt so I would compensate and pull back a little bit," Wainwright said. "You can’t pitch like that for very long."

He is not planning on having to this season, either. Thirty-two days away from reporting date for Cardinals pitchers and catchers, Wainwright insists he’s on track for a healthy season and doesn’t want to talk about reducing his workload to save some strength for a possible October run.

"I don’t think my October track record speaks to me getting real tired," Wainwright said. "I was injured last year. In 2013, I pitched great in October. I had one bad start, Game 1 of the World Series but every other start, I went at least seven innings and two runs or less if I’m not mistaken (very close; he gave up three runs in one start but no more than two in the others). I think you’d take that most times."

Of course they would. That’s as certain as the fact that Wainwright’s elbow will be closely analyzed all the way until October.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.