PHOENIX -- If Adam Wainwright had a run of four starts in which he pitched poorly in June or July, it would have gotten spotty coverage at best. April results appear larger, like a hunter’s moon. They stand out on the horizon, no stars or planets to distract the eye.
So, nobody in the vicinity of the St. Louis Cardinals was unaware that their Opening Day starter went into Wednesday night with an 0-3 record and 7.25 ERA, least of all Wainwright and his manager, Mike Matheny.
With the game seemingly on the line in the sixth inning and good pinch-hitting choices such as Brandon Moss and Matt Adams at his disposal, Matheny let Wainwright hit with the bases loaded and his team trailing by two runs.
Even though Wainwright had hung a curveball that Brandon Drury drilled for a two-run home run and elevated a fastball that Paul Goldschmidt sent soaring into orbit, Matheny had seen something different from Wainwright on Wednesday. The last thing he wanted to do was send him out of the game with a bad taste in his mouth.
So, he set his jaw and let him hit. Matheny said there were voices surrounding him on the bench suggesting he go to a pinch hitter, but the manager had the final say.
“It wasn’t going anywhere, because he was hitting,” Matheny said. “I made up my mind before we even got to there.”
For the first time this season, something good happened for Wainwright, something he had earned. He turned on an inside pitch and pulled it inside the third-base bag for a three-run triple, setting off what turned into an 11-4 Cardinals romp over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
The reason Wainwright was hitting in that spot isn’t that he is a great hitter, though he is a little better than the average pitcher. It was because the quality of his pitches had everyone in the Cardinals’ dugout excited about his trajectory, at last.
Granted, going 5⅓ innings and giving up four runs with five strikeouts doesn’t exactly look like the launch of a Cy Young campaign, but everything about it felt different than the previous four.
“If you look at the box score, it’s sneaky because you go, ‘What’s different about it?’ But I know,” Wainwright said.
When he missed his location, he missed by an inch or two off the plate, rather than leaking into the heart of the strike zone. His pitches moved as he expects them to. He got ground balls. The balls the Diamondbacks elevated became home runs, but that’s not surprising in this stadium.
“The proof is in the pudding and when I look up and I’m driving the ball at the knees and cutting it and sinking it and curving it like I should, there’s a lot of outs out there for me this year,” Wainwright said.
When you are one of the game’s most visible players, your struggles tend to attract attention, and Wainwright was hearing advice from all corners during his rough April, from former teammates to casual observers to at least one Hall of Famer, John Smoltz. Needless to say, he was the target of a fair share of abuse on Twitter.
Wary of being overwhelmed by opinions, he tightened his circle. He reached out to former teammate Chris Carpenter and asked pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and veteran teammate Jonathan Broxton what they saw.
“If you have 20 different voices coming at you, you don’t know what to work on,” Wainwright said.
Broxton was 400 feet away in the visiting bullpen, but he could see something was different about Wainwright Wednesday night.
“He’s been putting in the hours,” Broxton said.
Of all the factors Matheny mentioned for letting Wainwright hit -- from the lack of right-handed options on his bench to the fact he had thrown just 70 pitches to that point -- perhaps Broxton’s comment was the most telling. He had been putting in the hours to get better.