After missing all of 2011, Cards righty sharp in two-inning stint
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com | 03/09/12 7:18 PM EST
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Fifty-three weeks ago, the idea of a silver lining, any silver lining to the dark cloud that had descended upon Cardinals camp, was pretty much anathema to anyone wearing the "Birds on the Bat." Co-ace Adam Wainwright was lost for the season due to elbow surgery, and there was no reframing of the situation that could make anyone feel better.
When Wainwright took the mound at Hammond Stadium on Friday, however, it became clear. There was very much a silver lining last February, and it could make itself evident throughout the 2012 season.
For while Wainwright missed an entire season, it's possible that the second year out from the injury won't be compromised. That would make him different from many of the pitchers who undergo Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
Wainwright looked strong and sharp in his first start in 532 days, firing five different pitches over his two hitless innings. He struck out two, walked one and his fastball reached 93 mph. If you didn't know he'd been hurt, you'd never know he'd been hurt.
"I've never taken that kind of stuff to a mound in Spring Training," Wainwright said. "It's usually during the season when I bring stuff like that. So I was happy with the way it was coming out."
He was happy with a lot, actually. It was a big day for Wainwright, who last pitched in a Major League game on Sept. 24, 2010. Though it was a road game, plenty of Cardinals fans were in attendance, and they gave him quite a welcome when he was introduced.
Wainwright missed this, all of it, over the past year. He enjoyed cheering on his teammates, but that's nothing like being out there on the mound. "Usually I try to be -- I don't try to be, I am -- real serious before a game," he said. "Once I get kind of locked in, I usually don't have much emotion. ... But today when they said, 'Batting ninth [Zack Cox], and on the mound today, your pitcher Adam Wainwright,' the crowd kind of applauded and I was out there cheesing in the outfield for sure. It was a good feeling."
And it was an even better feeling once he realized how much he had to work with. Wainwright was dealing on Friday, thanks at least in part due to the timing of the injury.
He had the operation on March 1, 2011, so it was more than 12 full months before his first competitive game of any kind. He spent all of 2011 rehabbing, then had a winter off before coming to Spring Training.
Wainwright wasn't going through the motions or "just trying to work on things" Friday, either. He threw a wide assortment of pitches, getting one strikeout on a changeup and one on a cut fastball. He threw his fastball, curveball and slider to boot, and he threw them to particular spots with particular plans for them.
When a pitcher like Wainwright goes a year and a half without getting in a game, you can bet that he's going to compete when he gets the chance again. This was a chance to get ready for the season, but it was also a chance to try to get hitters out for real.
"He was pitching," manager Mike Matheny said. "He was competing. You could tell from the second he took the mound, just look at him. Look at his eyes, look at his demeanor. There was nothing getting in the way of him competing. These guys, this is what they do. ... And when you take it away from them, the opportunity to do it again brings out a little extra."
As Wainwright continues to go through his program, the Cardinals' medical staff will insist on a patient pace. It's important not to rush him, even a year removed from the operation.
On the baseball side, though, the expectations are high. Wainwright may have some hiccups, but the Cardinals' field staff is not looking at him as a question mark.
"You just expect him to be a regular guy," said pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. "We keep building up and doing the things that a normal starter would do, increasing his workload, and getting him ready to start the year healthy."
To some extent, he has the timing to thank for that. Rather than coming back at midseason, rushing to get in a game and then trying to find his form while other players are at full speed, Wainwright has a regular Spring Training. He had 12 months of getting ready to get ready, followed by a month of exhibition games. Then he gets to do the real thing.
It worked out pretty decent after all.
"I remember being down here when we got the news," Matheny said. "We all felt sick for him. We got the news that he was going to have to have Tommy John, and I remember somebody at that point saying, 'Well, it sets up really good. He's going to be ready to go right from the start next year.' And I'm thinking, 'Man, that's just kind of a bizarre way to think.' But I certainly understand it now."