FORT MYERS, Fla. – The wait didn’t seem like 532 days to Adam Wainwright.
Making his first appearance in a game since Sept. 24, 2010, the right-hander tossed a pair of scoreless innings and moved closer to what he called being a normal pitcher again.
“It was business as usual really,” Wainwright said. “I felt completely just like my old self out there to be honest with you.
“It feels like I pitched five days ago. I don’t feel like I’ve missed any time.”
Wainwright’s return comes a little more than 12 months after he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. He missed the entire 2011 season.
Appearing in game action for the first time in more than 17 months, Wainwright found himself smiling when the crowd cheered as he was introduced over the PA system as the starting pitcher.
“I was out there cheesing in the outfield for sure,” Wainwright admitted. “It was a good feeling.”
Facing the Minnesota Twins before a largely pro-Cardinals crowd on the road at Hammond Stadium, Wainwright looked like the pitcher that won 20 games in 2010.
He retired the first five batters and six of the seven he faced, allowing only a two-out, four-pitch walk to Sean Burroughs in the second inning. Wainwright had two strikeouts, including one to end the first inning when he caught Joe Mauer looking.
“I really executed pretty well for the first time out there,” Wainwright said. “To be honest with you, I’ve never taken that kind of stuff to the mound in spring training before. It’s usually during the season when I bring stuff like that. I was happy with the way it was coming out.”
Wainwright threw 30 pitches in his two innings, 17 of which came in the perfect first. He struck out Ryan Doumit on a changeup in the second inning before the two-out walk.
Working out of the stretch for the first time, Wainwright got Brian Dinkleman on an infield popup on the first pitch to end his afternoon.
Wainwright’s fastball averaged 91-92 miles-per-hour but he hit 93 with a handful of pitches. He threw his entire assortment of pitches, including three curveballs that were between 73-75 MPH.
“It looked effortless,” said manager Mike Matheny. “You look up there and you see 92, 93 without humping up at all. He just looked as smooth as he’s looked all spring.
“It’s just fun to watch a true competitor and you could see the intensity in his eyes like it was a Game 7. It’s just fun and it’s got to be encouraging for him to be there in that situation after working so hard.”
Wainwright finished second in the National League Cy Young voting in 2010 after going 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA. In his two seasons before getting hurt in 2009-2010, the right-hander topped all N.L. starters with 39 wins, 463 1/3 innings pitched and a 2.53 ERA.
The Cardinals are 77-42 in games started by Wainwright during his four-year run as a starter and 52-16 in games that he allowed three or fewer runs. His ERA has dropped in each of his four years as a starter, from 3.70 in 2007 to 3.20 in 2008, 2.63 in 2009 and 2.42 in 2010.
“He was pitching,” Matheny said. “He was competing. You could tell from the second he took the mound by just looking at him and his eyes and his demeanor, there was nothing getting in his way of competing.
“This is what they do, and they do well, and when you take it away from them, the opportunity to do it again brings out a little extra.”
Friday’s start was the continuation of nearly two months of throwing for Wainwright, who has been pitching off a mound since he arrived at the Cardinals spring training complex in Jupiter in early January.
But throwing off a mound in practice and in a game with fans in the stands are two totally different things. And doing the latter Friday helped Wainwright begin his trek towards normalcy.
“I haven’t accomplished anything yet but there’s a sense that my rehab process is coming to an end and I’m a normal pitcher again,” Wainwright said. “I think today was just the next step.”
Asked if he still wondered how his arm would feel in the coming days, Wainwright smiled and said, “I’m not at all worried about how I’m going to feel tomorrow.”
He’s scheduled to make his second start Wednesday against the Houston Astros in Jupiter.