BALTIMORE -- Adam Wainwright took the mound at Camden Yards, and at times his pitches barely cracked the speed limit on nearby Interstate 95.
Still, the 42-year-old right-hander held one of the game’s better offenses to two runs in five innings, and that was enough to earn his 199th win.
That outing last week was just what Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals needed as the veteran pitcher nears the conclusion of his career. His farewell season has been a difficult one for both him and his team, but now it’s a lot easier to envision a more pleasant ending.
“The level of competing for a pitcher out there should never wane, and it has at times, if I was just going to be honest,” Wainwright said after that win in Baltimore. “But I knew one thing: I was going to come today and I was going to compete.”
That’s the Wainwright that St. Louis fans will celebrate as he enters retirement. A three-time All-Star who has been with the Cardinals since his major-league debut in 2005, he’s left quite a legacy. Wainwright was a reliever at first, striking out Carlos Beltrán of the New York Mets to close out Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in 2006. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series that year. They did it again in 2011 -- although Wainwright missed that entire season.
The Cardinals are a franchise in transition now. They will finish with a losing record for the first time since 2007, and they’ve spent the past couple of years saying goodbye to team legends. Albert Pujols returned to St. Louis to play his final season last year, which also was Yadier Molina’s swan song. His 19-season career was spent entirely with the Cardinals.
“They had some special, special teams over there with some real special veterans that have been well talked about, and he was right with those guys,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who previously was a coach with the Chicago Cubs.
Pujols went on a bit of a tear toward the end of last season, hitting 18 home runs after the All-Star break to surpass 700. For Wainwright, this final chapter has been a lot different. The victory against Baltimore was his first since the middle of June and snapped a seven-start losing streak. His ERA is 7.95 even after a decent performance against the Orioles.
“When you start looking at guys that have had similar careers, sometimes it doesn’t finish well,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said before that game. “No one’s ever going to question Waino’s competitive nature. … My hope is he goes out here and takes his best shot, and whatever happens happens.”
Molina hit .214 in his final year. Although Pujols ended with a flourish, he certainly had his struggles late in his career. Marmol said he wants Wainwright to find joy in competing during his last few days as a big leaguer, but the manager acknowledged that’s hard if the results aren’t what a player wants.
That’s why last Tuesday night felt a little dramatic as Wainwright battled to keep the Orioles at bay -- and then the St. Louis bullpen tried to protect the lead. When the Cardinals prevailed 5-2, the win belonged to Wainwright.
“I definitely need to start pitching deeper into games, because watching the game is so much more nerve-wracking than playing in the game,” he said. “I’m going to run out of fingernails here … if I just keep pitching five innings.”
Now he’s one victory away from 200, and while there’s no guarantee he’ll get it, he’s got a shot. It’s about all the Cardinals have left to play for.
“The Waino thing is the headline because we’re trying to celebrate something,” Marmol said. “So, is there added pressure to get to 200? Sure. Does he want it? Yes. Do we want it for him? Yes.”
Whatever happens, St. Louis will have chances to show its appreciation. The Cardinals are in the middle of a homestand against Philadelphia and Milwaukee. After going back on the road, they’ll return to St. Louis for the very last series of the season against Cincinnati. On Sept. 30, Wainwright is slated to deliver a postgame concert on the second-to-last day of the season, performing three original songs from his upcoming country album.
As for 200 wins, Wainwright understands the clock is ticking, but after the game in Baltimore, he acknowledged it’s certainly a goal.
“It’d be pretty cool. It’s a nice round number,” Wainwright said. “Not much time. I knew today would be a really important win for me if I could get it.”
He will get a chance at win No. 200 tonight as he gets the start at Busch Stadium when the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers.