Michael Wacha was late for work Sunday morning. Well, not technically late, but late according to a new routine introduced by Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright — and late enough that pitching coach Derek Lilliquist noticed Wacha speeding to the team’s training complex on Military Trail, a nearby road.
Wacha arrived at 6:17 a.m.
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“Oh,” Lilliquist told him later, “that was you flying past me on Military.”
The Cardinals, mind you, do not hold their daily meeting at spring training until 9:45 a.m. They do not take the field until after that. But every morning this spring, in a show of unity and act of bonding, their top seven starting pitchers are reporting 3½ hours before the meeting, at 6:15 a.m.
Well, six of the seven, at least.
Right-hander John Lackey, after telling Wainwright that 6:15 is “awfully dang early,” is receiving special dispensation in deference to his age (36) and service time (12 years).
“You’ve earned a couple of minutes,” Wainwright said.
To which Lackey admitted, not so sheepishly, “I’ve been getting here more around 7, to be honest.”
So, what are the starters accomplishing by showing up so early?
Wainwright offers a detailed explanation — one that helps explain why the Cardinals have made four straight postseason appearances and eight in the past 11 years, including four trips to the World Series.
“In the offseason, I was thinking about our team, the turnover of the players, a lot of young guys we had,” Wainwright said. “I was thinking as a starting staff, you throw the first pitch of the game, you start the game off and hopefully you end the game. You set the tone. And I was just thinking, what a great message it would send to everybody in the clubhouse, everybody in the organization and to ourselves, too, that we would be among the first ones here.”
Shortly before spring training, Wainwright sent a group text to the other starters — Wacha, Lackey, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales. He suggested a 6 a.m. arrival but said he settled on 6:15 when some of the other pitchers “lobbied” for the later time.
By showing up early, the starting pitchers can complete their running, weight training and arm care before the scheduled team workout and also sit down for a group breakfast and chat. The pitchers plan to continue the practice through the end of Grapefruit League, though the starter can arrive later on the day he is pitching.
Would any of the starters have dared say no to Wainwright? Probably not, but Wainwright said he did not apply pressure to the other pitchers, telling them, “Here’s what I’m doing. I would love for you all to be here, too.”
Lynn, by his own acknowledgment, was the most likely to object. But even he went along.
“I was the first one to text back, which made him happy,” Lynn said. “I was the one he expected to veto it right away. I’m that little brother who pushes buttons. He was waiting for me to just try him. But I didn’t do it. I went opposite for him.”
Lynn, when asked about the new program, initially joked, “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m so mad at him.” He then cracked, “The fact that some people come in at 7:15 and still have plenty of time to do everything makes me think that it might not be necessary. That’s just my opinion.”
But seriously …
“It’s going well,” Lynn said. “It’s a good concept to get in here, work together, have the old breakfast together, have a little talk before we get our work in,” Lynn said. “But it is quite early. When you’re driving down the road and you’re the only one on it, it’s not fun.”
Garcia said he had no problem with the new arrival time, noting that he normally arrives at 6:15 to 6:30, anyway. Gonzales, who has made only 16 major-league appearances, six in the postseason, said he was thrilled that Wainwright even invited him to participate.
“Honestly, I was pretty pumped,” Gonzales said. “Just to be considered to be part of that group was pretty cool. I’m ecstatic. I’m like, the first one here, trying to be in the door as early as I can. It’s an honor to work out with those guys.”
Added Wacha, “Maybe some of these other young guys can see us in there, working out and say, ‘Hey, these guys are still getting after it.’ Adam Wainwright has no reason to show up. He has earned his time. But he’s still the leader of our group, putting in the most effort. It’s pretty cool.”