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Envisioning a Potential Wild Card Start for Adam Wainwright

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all. I’m running terribly late this morning with this column (it is 8:31 as I begin this), the result of being slightly under the weather and also having had a remarkably difficult time thinking of a topic for this particular column. One or the other would have been bad enough; feeling moderately shitty and having an idea can feel like a slog, and anytime you sit down and find yourself just staring at the post editor, trying desperately to just will some idea, any idea, into existence it can make for a long morning. But both together? Blech.

It is late August currently (a fact which I’m sure surprises very few of you, seeing as how you have access to the same sorts of calendar-based technology I do, therefore ensuring I am not breaking news here), and that largely accounts for my lack of ideas. August is generally pointed to as the most common candidate for the official designation of Dog Days, as the season has long ago lost its novelty and lustre, yet the playoffs still seem so very far away.

Personally, I would have no problem with baseball dropping back to a 154-game schedule, and perhaps shortening the season in terms of overall length through the judicious use of monthly doubleheaders, but I am definitely not one of those people who wants to see the season chopped down dramatically, to 130 games or something of the sort. In fact, I generally tend to think of those people as complete nutjobs. However, there are times in August nearly every year when I find myself thinking they might have a point. But then I step back, consider the season as a whole, and redecide those people are crazy, and I very much enjoy having 150+ games of baseball, beautiful, precious, baseball, to watch every year.

Still, August? Just get over already.

A thought occurred to me while I was watching the Cardinals miss a golden opportunity to put the Mets further in the rearview mirror last night (seriously; you put up a three spot in the first inning to tie the game as the opposition’s starting pitcher is forced to leave the contest as part of an ugly, continuing trend for New York of losing players to the DL lately, and then end up performing like that the rest of the way?), and the thought was this: obviously, if the Mets made it to the Bud Bowl, their opponent would have to deal with Noah Syndergaard, who put on a show on ESPN Sunday night and has emerged as the de facto ace of that staff, in spite of a variety of other predictions. But if the Cardinals make it to the one-game play-in, who do they have upon whose shoulders they would feel comfortable resting the season?

The thing is, the Redbirds have a variety of answers, depending on how you want to look at the question.

First off, admittedly, the question of who might start a potential play-in game could very well be a moot point by the time the game rolls around. If the Cards find themselves in a desperate struggle to make the playoffs down to the very last day of the season, then there’s a pretty decent chance they simply won’t have the ability to change or set the rotation in any way due to needing their best pitchers pitching their best on whatever schedule is necessary just to get there. But that’s not really an interesting situation to consider, now is it? So let’s just pretend that things go slightly better for El Birdos between now and the end of September, and heading into the final week to ten days of the season the Cardinals are comfortable enough in their Wild Card spot to try and set up the pitching matchup they want.

What makes the question interesting this year is the fact that the Cardinals still have an unquestioned leader of the rotation, and a team great, in the person of Adam Wainwright (not to mention the pitcher most trusted by Mike Matheny), yet it’s kind of difficult to argue that Adam Wainwright has been anything like the Cards’ best overall pitcher in 2016.

On the other hand, Waino does still lead the rotation in FIP this season (yep, I was surprised too), so there is an argument in his favour. As bad as Wainwright’s start to the season was, from the 18th of May, when he tossed 6 23 of shutout ball against the Rockies, to the 21st of July, when he struck out eight Padres in six innings without walking a single batter in an eventual 6-5 white-knuckle win, Wainwright posted a 2.58 ERA and 73:18 strikeout to walk ratio in just over 80 innings. That’s two months of ace-level pitching for the Cardinals’ long-term horse, and after that game against San Diego his season ERA stood at 4.09, the lowest mark of the year for Adam.

Even within the framework of that time, though (easily his best span of the year), Waino had a couple real clunkers. He gave up six runs on ten hits at Kansas City in late June, and the start before that, against the Cubs at Wrigley, he maneuvered his way through 6 23 really shaky innings, ultimately allowing three runs on four strikeouts, three walks, and six hits, but was very lucky to have seen some hard-hit balls find mitts in a way that seemed extremely notable to me, both in attending the game live and then rewatching it on DVR afterward.

Wainwright has been a very strong starter for a good chunk of the year, but he also seems to have become very susceptible to really, really bad starts in a way he never used to be. He’s allowed five or more runs in a start six times this season, out of 25 starts. That’s...not a great ratio, when your supposed ace is allowing 5+ runs nearly a quarter of the time. That blowup potential is what worries me most about Adam starting a play-in game at this point.

Of course, there’s also the history of the pitcher to consider here, and when it comes to the long-term, Wainwright has no equal on this staff. He’s been great for a long time (though I do occasionally get frustrated pretty often whenever people refer to him as a workhorse, considering he’s missed big chunks of three separate seasons of the ten he’s been a starter), and has the absolute trust of the manager. And, in fact, it could be some of that managerial trust that contributes to Adam’s big blowup games; a pitcher with a shorter leash might very well not be allowed to continue pitching long enough to allow the fifth, sixth, and seventh runs of his outing, whereas Waino is so trusted as to have more than enough with which to hang himself.

And I have to say, that trust is one of the aspects of Wainwright potentially starting a winner-take-all, loser-goes-home game that concerns me most. When playing for one’s playoff life, it would seem to be of paramount importance to manage with the utmost urgency, and to essentially treat the game as if there is no tomorrow, on account of there potentially being no tomorrow if your starter sticks you in a 5-1 hole after three innings. I could see Carlos Martinez pitching in the Wild Card game, cruising into the sixth inning with a 2-1 lead, having struck out five and walked two so far. If Carlos were to then put on two of the first three batters he faced in the sixth, say, one on a 3-2 borderline changeup that goes the hitter’s way and one on a solid single to right field putting men at first and third with one out, I think Matheny would go to his bullpen. He would play the matchup, hopefully getting Zach Duke into a favourable position, and do whatever he had to do to try and preserve the lead.

If, on the other hand, Adam Wainwright cruised into the sixth inning of the Wild Card game with a 2-1 lead and exactly the same stat line as quoted for Carlos above, I have to wonder how much of a leash he would have. If he walked the leadoff batter in the sixth on a borderline pitch, induced a weak fly ball, and then gave up a liner to right that put runners at the corners with one out, would Matheny walk to the mound and take the ball from his ace?

Of course, we don’t know the answer, sitting here in late August and dreamcasting the first week of October, but given all that we know about the manager, Adam Wainwright, and the relationship the two of them have, I have a sneaking suspicion Waino would be allowed to throw a flat 89 mph fastball belt high, on the outer half, and give up a two-run double to the gap in right-center. And then potentially be allowed to strike the next hitter out, only to allow a groundball single up the middle to finish turning that 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit, staring down the final nine outs of the season.

It concerns me that, somewhat paradoxically, the manager’s complete trust in his ace’s ability to get the job done could put said ace in the position of failing, whereas the hyper-talented but emotionally unstable (quote-endquote), just-turned-25-year-old would likely be relieved before the game could turn turtle on him.

Here’s the thing, though: as much as it worries me that Wainwright could potentially represent a trap built of trust and former brilliance, I also find myself concerned about the other options. Mike Leake is a nonstarter, in more than one way, for a one-game, season on the line situation. Luke Weaver is obviously a no-go as well. Alex Reyes is too young, too raw, and will likely be conditioned only for shortish relief outings at that point anyhow.

If you’re looking for shock and awe potential, Carlos is probably the choice, but I have to admit 2016 has been a bit of a disappointment to me in terms of what I hoped to see from El Gallo. He’s been excellent in a lot of ways, but so often I watch him take the mound and his delivery varies wildly from inning to inning, often from pitch to pitch (seriously, whoever put it in his ear that he should slow his delivery down and finish standing perfectly upright, please just knock it the fuck off right now), and I feel like we’re watching a pitcher with restrictor plates on.

I thought he would maintain the strikeout gains he made last season, potentially taking even another step forward as he improved his command and efficiency, cutting the walks and shooting up to a new level. Instead, the potential we saw in him last year has been on display more sporadically this season, and while I’m still a firm believer he has at least one more huge jump in him, it’s a little strange watching him pitch and feeling like you’re watching a pitcher deliberately go away from the best version of himself.

Honestly, if you’re looking for the highest potential for one-game dominance, Jaime Garcia might actually be the best choice. Carlos has the overwhelming stuff, and Wainwight has the Carpenterian approach, but Jaime has been the guy throughout his career who just might, on a given day, do something magical. Then again, considering you’re very unlikely to be facing the Brewers in the Wild Card game this year, maybe that magic potential is somewhat mitigated.

Then again again, considering Mike Leake did have those multiple 10+ strikeout games, maybe he could be a one-game No, I just can’t even consider it.

If the Cardinals have the ability to set their rotation ahead of time for a hypothetical play-in game matchup, I have to believe it will be Adam Wainwright who gets the call. He wouldn’t be my choice, honestly; even with the hand-wringing I did a moment ago over Carlos Martinez merely being a very good starter this year, rather than the darkhorse Cy Young contender I believed in my heart of hearts he would be, I would still go with him, I think. Perhaps I am falling into the old trap of, as Pompey the Great might say, worshiping the rising sun, rather than the setting sun, but in a one-game playoff I want my guy with what I believe to be the best chance to win on the mound. But for all the reasons we all know so well, it feels almost a fait accompli that Wainwright would be the choice, for all his past glories and the implicit trust the manager holds for him.

It feels as if there are an awful lot of pitfalls lying that way, though.

And yes, before you say it, this is very much a cart before the horse situation. But September is just around the corner, and while this has been perhaps the most frustrating season of the past decade of watching Cardinal baseball (the 2007 team just wasn’t very good, and thus less frustrating to watch struggle to live up to what feels like the true talent level), the fact is the Redbirds once again control their own destiny when it comes to earning a playoff spot. Perhaps it will only be the one-game variety of playoff spot, but still, if this team plays up to their potential, we should see some form of playoff baseball.

So I’ll ask all of you: who is your win-or-go-home starter? And is there any way you can see it not being the guy who has carried so much of the load for the better part of that decade?