MILWAUKEE — Even at 40 years old last season, Adam Wainwright won 17 games and finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting largely because of his success with one particular area of his pitch arsenal. The Cardinals’ staff ace didn’t just lead the NL in strike calls on pitches on the edge of the plate last season; he led it by a wide margin.
“It’s out of necessity,” Wainwright said earlier in the week when asked about the 388 pitches he threw on the plate’s edges for called strikes last season.
For whatever reason, Wainwright didn’t have the same sort of command on Thursday in Milwaukee, and the Brewers made him pay for it in a 5-1 loss at American Family Field. Wainwright allowed four runs — three of which came with two outs when he got “just real sloppy,” in his own description. Of the eight hits he surrendered, all of them came on pitches that were in the heart of the plate.
“Too many mistakes in the middle of the plate, and that team over there is going to hit balls in the middle of the plate,” Wainwright said of an uncharacteristic outing where he walked two, but also struck out seven. “When I was on the edges was when I made pitches, and they didn’t hit those pitches. The ones that were getting hit were in the middle of the plate and thigh-high.
“It’s one thing to be in the middle if you are down, but thigh-high in the middle are balls that get hit hard. I threw a lot of those.”
Even in defeat, Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina notched some notable history. The start was the 306th since 2005 for the battery, tying them for third in MLB history with Red Faber and Ray Schalk. With 10 more starts, they will move into a tie for second with Warren Spahn and Del Crandall, and they are just 18 starts from equaling the all-time record set by Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan.
Kolten Wong, a former teammate of Wainwright and Molina in St. Louis, marveled at the baseball brilliance of two stars who might both end up in the Hall of Fame. Wong, who opened the bottom of the first with a triple, said he loves the mental gymnastics of facing a crafty veteran like Wainwright.
“Waino, it’s kind of a chess match always,” said Wong, who had two hits and an RBI on Thursday. “He’s so smart with how he pitches, how he attacks hitters. You’re just really trying to hone in on a certain zone and be aggressive in that zone. I got a pitch I knew I could handle to start us off on the right foot.”
Wainwright started the Cardinals out on the right foot on Opening Day with six innings of scoreless baseball against the Pirates. His second start was slated to come on Wednesday against Zack Greinke and the Royals, but it was washed out by rain. Wainwright wanted nothing to do with pointing blame for his poor outing at having an extra day between starts.
Following Wong’s leadoff triple, Wainwright appeared ready to get out of the early jam by getting Willy Adames to pop up and striking out Christian Yelich looking. However, Andrew McCutchen drilled a belt-high sinker back up the middle for an RBI — one that induced some demonstrative frustration from the Cardinals ace.
Later, following an Omar Narváez solo home run on a poor cutter in the middle of the plate, Wainwright allowed the Brewers to score their third and fourth runs with two outs in the third. A veteran of 18 seasons, Wainwright knows games are often decided by limiting damage in two-out situations.
“I gave up three two-out runs,” he said. “It’s four runs, but three of them were with two outs. A lot of times that’s where the game is won or lost, and I didn’t make good two-out pitches. That’s what I’m most upset about. The home run to Narváez is a horrible pitch, but it’s one pitch; the other three runs were with two outs. One-nothing looks a lot different than four-nothing against a guy like [Brandon] Woodruff.”
Wainwright is a different pitcher when he’s spotting his curveball and cutter and keeping hitters from barreling up balls. Location, location, location is more than just a real-estate slogan; it’s a way of life for Wainwright.
“You get zeroes when you locate and mix it up — up and down, in and out — and today I was at a predictable height,” Wainwright added. “Even when I was on the corner, it was thigh-high. I don’t make any money at the thigh.”