As the Cardinals wait for Adam Wainwright, the offense starts to click

ATLANTA -- The St. Louis Cardinals have one very frustrated ace.

After missing the better part of last year recovering from ankle surgery, Adam Wainwright is struggling to get a feel for the pitches that made him one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League for a run of five straight years before the injury.

While the Cardinals’ resurgent offense led to a happy flight for most of the team after a three-game sweep in Atlanta punctuated by Sunday’s 12-7 win, Wainwright had a lot to think about.

He said his mechanics are radically off, causing his pitches often to be rendered ineffective. He was hit hard at times Sunday. In two starts, he has allowed eight runs on 12 hits. More surprising, he has given up eight walks over 11 innings, his pitches straying from catcher Yadier Molina’s target.

He has struck out a total of five batters. According to PITCHf/x, Wainwright’s average fastball was 89.9 mph Sunday.

“When I throw a fastball, instead of it being 91 [mph] with late life or even 90 with late life, you’re seeing a ball that’s just kind of floating across the zone right now and those hitters, they just don’t miss things like that,” Wainwright said. “My hook’s rolling in and my cutter’s kind of sliding in. It’s very different from where I traditionally pitch at and where I’m going to pitch at in a few games here.”

Wainwright said it took him “half a season” to get the feel for his pitches the last time he returned from a major layoff, in 2012, his first healthy season after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery. Wainwright managed, eventually, to right the ship that year, going 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA. His next two seasons combined, he went 39-18 with a 2.67 ERA.

He promised he wouldn’t let these struggles linger toward the All-Star break.

“I’m going to keep having that mindset where I know the next time I go out there, it’s going to be different,” Wainwright said. “The work I’m putting in between starts will make a difference. It’s very, very frustrating. I’m so upset about the way the ball’s coming out right now.”

The Cardinals can only hope Wainwright gets a handle on the mechanical glitches that are preventing him from getting extension on his pitches. They managed to overcome getting swept in Pittsburgh by sweeping here largely on the strength of an offense that scored 31 runs in three games and a bullpen that kept putting up zeroes.

That gave them a measure of momentum heading home for the first time this season.

Still, they can’t count on outbursts like this, primarily because most of the league doesn’t pitch as poorly as the Braves. They’re going to need their rotation, considered the strength of the team all offseason, to improve on its 6.25 ERA. There is a reason Wainwright was named the team’s Opening Day starter just a few days into camp. He is among the most important Cardinals and they’ll give him plenty of time to iron out his struggles.

“It’s one of those things where he’s figuring it out,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “He’ll lock it down and then he’ll roll.”

The Cardinals’ bullpen has been everything the rotation thus far has not, consistently stifling. The relievers have a collective 1.66 ERA and have struck out 31 batters in 21 2/3 innings. Seung Hwan Oh got a beer shower from Molina in the visiting clubhouse after recording his first major league win Sunday.

Oh, Jonathan Broxton and Trevor Rosenthal got the last nine outs. Rosenthal had to throw 30 pitches over two innings after Matheny brought him in to strike out Jeff Francoeur in the eighth. A Kolten Wong error didn’t help.

Meanwhile, the young hitters who were supposed to be on the Cardinals’ bench have moved front and center. Jeremy Hazelbaker continues to get opportunities and produce, as do Aledmys Diaz and Greg Garcia, at times.

The mainstays have started getting into gear lately, too. Brandon Moss and Matt Carpenter both hit three-run home runs Sunday. After coming up with 17 hits in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals managed 35 here.

“We got pitched tough in Pittsburgh as a group,” Carpenter said. “We had some better at-bats this weekend. Now, we can kind of get on a roll.”