heroes

tony has left wainwright out on a limb a few times already this year and got away with it, but sooner or later it was bound to cost him; only a matter of time. the times that it worked:

  • april 16: at the 113-pitch mark (in only his 3d start of the year) and 20 pitches into the 8th inning, wainwright stays in to face ryan braun with 2 on, 1 out, and a 3-run lead. adam jams him and gets the second out, then departs for flores, who retires prince fielder; cards win it, 5-4.
  • april 21: at the 97-pitch mark, wainwright stays in to face jj hardy with 2 on, 2 out in the bottom of the 7th in a tie game. he gets hardy on a grounder to short; cards win the game 4-3.
  • april 26: the infamous 126-pitch game. wainer starts the 9th inning of a tie game with 101 pitches already under his belt, then labors through a 25-pitch inning that features 2 walks and 4 3-ball counts. with 2 on and 2 out, he strikes out hunter pence to end the threat. cards win it in the bottom of the inning on a walkoff single.

all those games followed the same pattern as last night’s --- wainwright begins to labor, loses command, starts breaking off his curve into the dirt, and walks a couple of men. until last night, he always managed to muster the reserves to get himself off the hook.

those successes propelled wainwright into the role of designated pitching-staff hero --- the "ace" whose responsibilities include not only throwing lots of innings but also inspiring the clubhouse with mental toughness and gut-check performances. most la russa teams have a pitcher thusly assigned --- dave stewart back in the oakland days, and (in succession) andy benes, darryl kile, matt morris, chris carpenter, and adam wainwright for the cardinals. la russa likes to have a guy in whom he can place complete faith, a guy he can entrust a game, a team, a season to. sometimes this hero-hurler simply shows up on the roster (e.g., in the cases of benes and kile); sometimes la russa has to manufacture him.

i’m only half-joking here; tony undeniably has a romantic streak when it comes to starting pitchers. but in truth, i don’t think that’s what tripped tony up last night --- not necessarily. there was a very rational case for letting wainwright pitch to michaels with the sacks jammed and 2 out in the 7th; indeed, i think that decision was less ill-advised than the three situations bullet-pointed above. wainwright’s pitch count wasn’t high last night --- the gopher ball to michaels was only #85 on the game --- and he still had plenty of life on his fastball, which was consistently in the low 90s throughout the inning. the pirates hadn’t made good contact all evening; the man was working on a 3-hit shutout. sure he’d lost his feel for the strike zone for a few batters, but he’s demonstrated the ability to steady himself. i for one did not see the grand slam coming.

and why would i? prior to michaels’ homer, wainwright hadn’t allowed a single homer all season with men on base; all 8 of his previous gopher balls had been solo shots. and wainer had never, ever given up a grand slam in the big leagues. indeed, in his 38 career bases-loaded confrontations, he’d only give up two extra-base hits. i just can’t fault la russa for trusting wainwright in that situation. you or i might have played it differently, but that doesn’t mean tony’s play was irrational and/or indefensible. there were logical reasons to give wainwright one more batter. the guy just didn’t come through this time.

notice that i said "one more batter" . . . . . perhaps tony had a logical case to leave wainwright in for the michaels at-bat, but sending him back out for the 8th inning was the work of the romantic, hero-seeking tony. adam had pretty much abandoned his curveball by then --- he only threw it twice in the 7th and twice in the 8th, never for a strike --- and he couldn’t get the slider over either. he was almost down to one pitch: 20 of his last 28 offerings (not counting the pitchout) were fastballs --- this from a guy who normally only throws fastballs 53 percent of the time. he was trying to get by on sheer competitiveness. tony loves to see his heroes do that; do you think there's a pinch of wish-fulfillment involved? after all, competitiveness was the only asset la russa had as a player; it'd be nice to think that one could succeed on that alone. . . . . . i guess sometimes you can. but when it backfires, you end up with a loss that seems like it should have been avoidable . . . .

that was only the 4th time this year that the cardinals have lost when scoring 4 or more runs.

* * * * * * * * *

here’s a quick word about the other pitching-staff hero, todd wellemeyer, who was named the nl pitcher of the month for may. surprisingly, no st louis pitcher has won this award since september 2001, when woody williams (then in his second month with the team) took the honor. and The Colonel is only the 5th stl starting pitcher ever to win the award, which dates back to 1975; the others are woody, john tudor, joaquin andujar, and --- this last one has me slightly worried --- garrett stephenson, who posted a 5-0, 1.42 record the month he won the award (may 2000) but went 8-9, 4.86 in the remaining 4 months of that season. fortunately, stephenson is the exception; baseball-alamanc.com’s got a complete list of the winners, and very few of them are outright flukes. you’ve really got to be good to win this thing; indeed, stephenson's one of the worst pitchers ever to win the award. wellemeyer’s such an unexpected winner (or even candidate) for this award that you can’t help wondering whether he will go the way of stephenson, but i don’t think it’s gonna happen. he’s not the same type of pitcher. this award should add to our confidence that wellemeyer's improvement is real and sustainable.

notes from the minor leagues:

  • fernando salas struck out the side again at double A to preserve springfield’s win. his current strikeout rate is 15.6 men per 9 innings; his hits per 9 is 1/3 of that, 5.0 per 9.
  • the palm beach closer, francisco samuel, also struck out the side --- and also maintains a 3-to-1 strikeouts-to-hits ratio. his k/9 for the season (across two levels) stands at 13.7 after last night’s contest . . . .
  • pete kozma went 3 for 4 with a double and a triple to arrest a precipitous slide --- he was 4 for his previous 36 with 0 xbh and 0 rbi. in the same game, nick addition threw 5 no-hit innings for the win.
  • rough outing for jason motte --- he gave up 4 runs in 2 innings and took the loss. he’s been getting the crap beat out of him lately --- an 8.71 era in his last 10 outings (10.1 innings). he’s still striking out gobs of hitters --- 19 ks during that span, which averages out to 16.5 men per 9 --- but he’s also walking a ton of people (8 bbs in the 10 innings), which presumably leads to a lot of hitters counts and, in turn, a lot of base hits --- he has given up nearly 2 hits an inning during this rough patch.

i’m headed out of town tomorrow, won’t be back until sunday. i’ve been promised that high-speed WiFi awaits at my destination, which is remote; if i can’t get a signal, guess i’ll see ya next week. . . . .

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