- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The stat line is unsightly, and it's trying St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright's patience. He's a prideful athlete, and nothing galls a ballplayer with high standards more than a failure to perform to expectations.
Here we are, 35 games into the Cardinals' season, and Wainwright has two measly doubles in 20 at-bats. For a pitcher who prides himself on his ability to rake, a .100 batting average is a personal affront.
But he's confident he'll figure it out eventually. Wainwright continues to work diligently in the cage with coaches Mike Aldrete and Dave McKay, and he believes in using every other resource at his disposal. He recently approached Mark McGwire, St. Louis' new hitting instructor, in hopes that Big Mac might have an observation or two to share.
"I said, 'Come on, man, give me some tips,"' Wainwright said. "But he's just so busy. He's been working his tail off with the rest of the hitters."
As Wainwright keeps grinding out at-bats and hoping a few more balls find holes, he'll have to settle for pitching his way into the good graces of his teammates and Cardinals fans. Judging from that set of numbers, he's doing just fine at his day job.
The Cardinals, fresh off three straight losses in Houston, owe their 20-15 record and half-game lead over Cincinnati in the National League Central to lockdown pitching from every starter not named Kyle Lohse. Chris Carpenter, Wainwright, Brad Penny and rookie Jaime Garcia are a combined 15-7 with a 2.08 ERA.
Wainwright, who is 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA heading into Saturday night's start against Reds rookie Mike Leake, might have the best curveball in the majors. According to Inside Edge, he struck out a major-league-high 140 batters with the pitch in 2009. Houston's Wandy Rodriguez and the Yankees' A.J. Burnett were the only other pitchers to record more than 100 strikeouts with the curveball.
Wainwright also has a genuine feel for the art of pitching. He throws his fastball in the 90-93 mph range, dials back to the mid-70s for his hook, and visits numerous radar-gun destinations in between in his quest to keep hitters off balance. During a recent game at Citizens Bank Park, Wainwright threw a handful of splitters against the Phillies; he later revealed that it was the first time he'd thrown the pitch in a game this season.
"I try to change the pace in my delivery and my pitches all the time, so they don't know what in the heck is coming," he said.
Wainwright is picking up where he left off in 2009, when he went 19-8 with a 2.63 ERA and a league-high 233 innings pitched. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Carpenter and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum as Cy Young announcement day approached, so his mind naturally began racing when Cardinals media-relations director Brian Bartow reached him by phone in early November.
"Brian said, 'I've got some great news for you,'" Wainwright recalled. "So I'm thinking, 'Tell me I won the Cy Young. That would be unbelievable.' He tells me, 'You won a Gold Glove.' And I went, 'Shut up! Get out of here! What are you talking about?'"
Wainwright hung up and immediately shared the news with his wife, Jenny.
"She said, 'Shut up! Get out of here! No you didn't!" Wainwright said, laughing.
If Wainwright seemed destined to win any non-pitching award, it was a Silver Slugger. From 2006 through 2009, he hit an impressive (by pitchers' standards) .244 in 217 at-bats. Wainwright's five home runs in that span tied him with Dontrelle Willis for third most among pitchers behind Carlos Zambrano and Micah Owings, and he developed enough of a reputation as a threat that opposing clubs took pains to pitch him carefully.
"I love watching him take BP," McGwire said. "He's got a terrific swing. He's actually really short to the baseball. Unfortunately, pitchers don't get to hit enough where they can zero in on pitch selection. They get maybe three or four at-bats a week if they're lucky, and it's pretty tough to keep in tune."
Athleticism is a great equalizer, and Wainwright is one gifted individual. He was generally regarded as the best golfer on the St. Louis roster before McGwire joined the coaching staff this season. As a high schooler at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., Wainwright played soccer, set the county record for batting average and home runs, and was a wide receiver, backup quarterback, placekicker and punter for the Red Terrors' football team. He kicked a 60-yard field goal off a tee in practice and tied the school record with a 48-yarder in a game.
"I sort of fell in love with kicking," Wainwright said. "It was like pitching or golf, where the game is on the line and you have to make a big shot. Everyone hates the kicker until he makes a big kick, and then they love the kicker. Then you miss and they hate you again. But the pressure is always on, and I like the pressure spots."
Even though Wainwright stood a gangly 6-6½, 170 pounds, he claims to have been quite the pass-catching threat. But his St. Louis teammates have their doubts.
"We give him a little flak in here about being a kicker," Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker said. "Everybody else played offense and defense, and he was out there with one bar on his facemask and no shoulder pads."
Adam's a terrific athlete, especially when you consider how tall he is.
”-- Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire
Before the 2000 draft, Wainwright traveled to Pittsburgh and took batting practice at Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates considered drafting him as an outfielder, but decided to use the 19th overall choice on lefty pitcher Sean Burnett. The Braves picked Wainwright 29th overall and quickly signed him to a $1.25 million bonus. Former Braves executive Dayton Moore, now Kansas City's general manager, negotiated the deal with Wainwright's brother Trey, then a University of Georgia law student and now an established attorney in Atlanta.
The Wainwrights' hometown of St. Simons Island, Ga., went into a frenzy as the word spread about Adam.
"As the news traveled around the neighborhood and across the island, we had people spilling out into the front yard," Trey Wainwright said. "Somebody came and put a big Braves flag up, and people were bringing over Braves hats and license plates." One friend drew up a big banner reading, "Adam Wainwright -- Atlanta Braves," and it hung in the yard for two weeks.
During his apprenticeship with the Braves, Wainwright went to two spring training camps with the big club and took mental notes as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz worked on bunting, properly fielding the position, and the other little things necessary to have a well-rounded game.
Although the lessons stuck, Wainwright had no say in his future. In December 2003, Atlanta traded Wainwright and pitchers Jason Marquis and Ray King to St. Louis for outfielder J.D. Drew and catcher Eli Marrero. Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals' general manager at the time, refused to make the deal unless the Braves included Wainwright, who was rated the Braves' top prospect by Baseball America in 2003.
The trade was an emotional jolt for Wainwright, who grew up rooting for some bad Braves teams in the late 1980s before the franchise began its run of 14 straight division titles. Ask him about his boyhood allegiances, and he quickly reels off the names Dale Murphy, Ozzie Virgil, Lonnie Smith and Andres Thomas -- players who were around when things were grim and the Fulton County Stadium stands were empty.
"The boys," Wainwright calls them.
Wainwright adapted quickly to his new surroundings in St. Louis. When Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen suffered a hip injury in September 2006, Wainwright stepped in as closer and threw 9 2/3 shutout innings in October. He froze the Mets' Carlos Beltran with an 0-2 curve to conclude the National League Championship Series, and struck out Brandon Inge on three straight sliders to clinch St. Louis' deciding Game 5 victory over Detroit in the World Series.
As a student of pitching, Wainwright considers himself fortunate to have Carpenter, pitching coach Dave Duncan and catcher Yadier Molina as sounding boards. He talks the usual good-natured smack about his hitting acumen and seems amused by his budding reputation as a defender. He jokes that his strategy for winning a second Gold Glove is to "get out of the way" and let shortstop Brendan Ryan catch the ball and throw it to first base.
Still, for someone so tall and lean, Wainwright is quick off the mound and aggressive in making plays.
"It's funny when you see people on TV, then you notice so much more when you see them on an everyday basis," McGwire said. "Adam's a terrific athlete, especially when you consider how tall he is. And he's so coordinated. If you want to use the term 'all-around pitcher,' he's an all-around pitcher."
With the notable exception of Pujols, Wainwright might be the game's premier Triple Crown threat. Mike Hampton of the 2003 Braves was the last pitcher to win a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award in the same season, but he failed to make a dent in the Cy Young balloting. If Wainwright can get his bat out of neutral, who knows where things might lead? He finished third behind Lincecum and Carpenter in the 2009 NL Cy Young balloting, and it appears he'll be in the mix again this season.
Just for fun, Wainwright was asked how he might respond if Brian Bartow calls in November and tells him he's won Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and Cy Young Awards in the same season. How much of a mind-blower would that be?
"I might retire if that happens," Wainwright said. "That would be the only bad thing about it."