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Notes From a Dark Afternoon at the Ballpark

The Cardinals lost today. This is what it was like.

I was at the game earlier this evening. It sucked. It’s funny; saying something sucked and that you really don’t want to talk about it doesn’t work so well when it is your contractual obligation to write-slash-talk about the game. But we’ll just put that part up front: that game sucked.

It will, of course, be laid at the feet of Carlos Martinez, who for the second outing in a row came in and gave up three runs. That’s not the end of the world when you have a four run lead; a one run lead is a very different story. But really, blaming Carlos is putting things in the wrong perspective. He hasn’t been good, by any means, but the fact is you don’t win many ballgames when you score one run in eighteen innings. The Cards have scored one run in the last eighteen innings, and they have lost two games in a row. That’s just how it works most of the time.

I sat in the really great seats my father occasionally gets through work; section 150, about halfway up the lower bowl and just about four seats off the center line. Almost the entire row behind us was occupied by scouts of various stripes. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Mike Soroka from that vantage point, and I have to say that having seen him from there his success makes more sense to me now than before. Some guys you can tell right away why they’re good; Soroka was a bit of a mystery to me before. But now I see it.

There’s something just a little odd about Mike Soroka’s delivery. I honestly can’t tell quite what it is, but some combination of his arm slot, the pace of his delivery, some weird little thing he does with the ball at release, and some aspect of the spin he imparts on the ball all combine to make his pitches just flat-out hard to track. Not hard to see, exactly, but hard to track. His fastball, even at 94, looks slow. But not slow like a pitch that’s actually slow; slow as in the ball always seems to take longer than you think to get there. I’m trying to come up with a good way to explain this and struggling.

When Soroka releases the ball, there is some slight sleight of hand going on almost, where everything he throws feels sort of like a changeup, even when it’s his fastball. The timing is strange. The ball doesn’t end up where you expect it to. There is just something very deceptive about the pitches Mike Soroka throws, and I understand much better now why he is so effective. On paper the stuff is good, but not great. Watching him throw from right behind home plate, though, I found myself struggling to time up his pitches like I would usually do. Everything he throws is just tough to pick up for some reason. You can get the bat on the ball, but not the good part.

The picture at the top of this column is one I took myself, just with my cell phone. I should have taken my camera, but dealing with stadium security is such a pain anyway that I don’t really like taking anything I don’t absolutely have to have through the gate. So it was a cell phone photo only that I snapped of what might very well be the last pitch Adam Wainwright ever throws in a Cardinal uniform. Now, admittedly, we thought that last year at this time too, only to see Waino come back and put together a very solid campaign. But all the same, if the Cardinals lose this series — and I fully expect them to, much as it hurts me to say — then it’s very possible Adam Wainwright has just completed his last game as a Cardinal.

The pitch was a ball, up and away. Ozzie Albies took it, bent to remove his shin guard, and trotted off toward first base. And that was the end. Mike Shildt came out to relieve Wainwright, Andrew Miller came in, and the crowd gave Waino a very loud standing ovation as he walked off the field. He was disappointed, frustrated. Easy to see on his face. He tipped his cap to the fans all the same. It was easier to see his expression on the video board than from where I was sitting, but his walk said everything that needed to be said. Here was pride, wounded. Here was a man nearing the end, if not already there, angry he couldn’t have finished things off on his terms. Adam Wainwright wanted to walk off the field after getting the third out, his way. Instead, the manager had to come out and pull him for the good of the team.

It was that sort of day, really.

The fact is, Adam Wainwright should not have still been on the mound to pitch to Ozzie Albies. He probably shouldn’t have gone out for the eighth inning period. I would have pulled him before that. Definitely. Certainly. Almost 100% sure.

Except, maybe not.

My head told me Wainwright should have been out of there already. My heart, on the other hand, wanted him to just keep pitching forever. Watching Adam Wainwright this season has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance. He’s 38 years old, and his fastball rarely breaks 90, and he has about a quarter of a million miles — and multiple surgical procedures — on that right arm of his. He is also an icon of the franchise, a surefire red jacket down the road, and one of the greatest pitchers to ever wear the birds on the bat.

He should not have been in the game. Please don’t make him leave.

I could not believe Mike Shildt left Wainwright in to throw 120 pitches, the last ten of which he was clearly labouring. I still wanted him to finish that inning, though. I don’t take pictures of every pitch pitchers throw, but I have a picture of the last pitch he threw in the seventh inning, and the single by Dansby Swanson, and the lineout by Adam Duvall, and the final twelve pitches Waino threw. Whatever his last pitch turned out to be, I wanted to have a record of it.

The time is coming the Cardinal organisation will have to make a decision about Adam Wainwright’s time with the team. My head tells me they need to move on, focus on the future, and solidify the rotation with younger players. There’s a part of me that thinks he could totally come back next year and be just as good as he was this year, and I don’t want to watch Wagonmaker put on some other uniform. The people in charge of making decisions like that for the organisation will have to decide if they go head or heart. Wainwright himself will have to do the same. I’m sure he knows he is extraordinarily unlikely to be this good again. Him coming back at age 38 and doing what he did this year was a minor miracle; the chances his age 39 encore would go as well are vanishingly small. And yet I’m sure some part of him wants to do it, wants to keep pushing, wants to put the uniform on until they just won’t let him wear it any longer.

I can’t not think about watching him walk off the field, the combination of frustration, gratitude, and loss etched all over his features. He knows it might have been the last time. He wanted it to be different.

Perhaps this is how it should end. Walking off the field having just thrown a gem for his team, the only team for whom he has ever pitched, against his old team, the club that drafted him, the team he grew up loving. He didn’t get to finish that inning the way he wanted, the manager had to come and get him. I hope that Wainwright gets to walk away from the game on his own terms, and no one has to hand him his walking papers and tell him it’s time to go home.

It was chilly in the stands today.