ST. LOUIS — In the wake of Saturday’s season-ending Wild Card Series loss, when emotions were still raw and tears were still flowing inside the Cardinals clubhouse, veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright wasn’t quite ready to ponder the inevitable just yet.
What’s it going to be like never pitching to catcher Yadier Molina again? Also, there’s this: Will Wainwright join Cardinals legends Albert Pujols and Molina in retirement and never throw one of his signature 12-6 curveballs again?
“Have I thought about it? Well, everybody asks me about it,” Wainwright said incredulously. “We’ll see what happens. We should know pretty soon if something happens. If not, it’s been a good run and thank you, St. Louis.”
Wainwright, 41, could be forgiven for not being totally prepared to contemplate such a monumental decision considering that he assumed the Cardinals still had plenty of time left in their season. Following a year in which he and Molina set the NL/AL record for career starts by a battery, Pujols made a stirring surge to and through 700 home runs and the Cardinals won the NL Central for the first time in three years, Wainwright fully figured St. Louis had a magical playoff run in store.
That might have happened had they not completely melted down in a ninth-inning collapse of a 6-3 loss to the Phillies in Friday’s Game 1. And when Aaron Nola completely silenced the Cardinals’ bats in a 2-0 loss on Saturday, St . Louis had been swept out of the playoffs, and the careers of Pujols and Molina ended with an unexpected abruptness.
Wainwright, who has yet to reveal whether he plans to return in 2023, admitted that he was completely caught off guard by the season ending with a whimper instead of another magical moment. Returning in 2022 was easy after going 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA the season before; this scenario, however, makes for a much tougher call.
“There was so much magic going on this season with Albert and Yadi, and I just thought, ‘We can’t go out like this,'” said Wainwright, who spent the early stages of Game 2 in the bullpen and said he was ready to pitch in Game 3 had the series gone that far. “It was just too special, what we had going on. With our two guys here and what they were bringing to the table, I always thought we were winning it.”
Wainwright has been used to winning throughout his 18-year career, piling up 195 wins, four top-5 finishes in NL Cy Young Award voting and a World Series ring as a closer in 2006. He was injured during the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship season. Among active pitchers, Wainwright ranks first in complete games (28); fifth in wins (195), strikeouts (2,147) and quality starts (242); and eighth in ERA (3.38).
Miles Mikolas, the tough-luck loser in Saturday’s Game 2, said he’s already started lobbying Wainwright to return, stressing: “I’ve already told him, ‘I’ll see you in the spring.’ Hopefully, it’s not as a coach, because he’s a guy who is as irreplaceable as Yadi and Albert. You know if he’s got back on his mind, he’ll be 100% ready. I hope that’s the choice he makes because I could really use another year of Waino.”
This past season was something of an anomaly as the 6-foot-7 Wainwright struggled so badly down the stretch that he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to pitch in the Wild Card Series against the advancing Phillies. That indignity, he said, will play a role in his decision-making as to whether he will pitch beyond this season — one way or the other.
“Well, you never can tell,” Wainwright said when asked if he will be motivated by going 11-12 and being passed over in the two playoff games. “I’ll tell you this: I don’t like not pitching a playoff series. So, you can take that in one of two ways — you can take that as it’s been a good run or you can take it as motivation to never let that happen again.”
Wainwright talked earlier in the season about how one of his boyhood heroes while growing up in Georgia, John Smoltz, “never looked right” wearing a Cardinals uniform after the Hall of Fame pitcher spent so much of his career with the Braves. He added that he could never see himself wearing the uniform of another team — and maybe that’s why Wainwright was still in full uniform an hour after the final pitch of Saturday’s loss.
What Wainwright also can’t imagine doing is pitching to a catcher other than Molina, who ended his 19-year career with the Cardinals on Saturday with a hit in his final at-bat. Already the winningest starting battery in MLB history (213 victories), Wainwright and Molina teamed together to set an NL/AL record for durability (328 starts) late in the season. Their 2,155 innings rank first in Cardinals history and fourth all-time. Only 412 1/3 of Wainwright’s innings have ever been thrown to a catcher other than the departing Molina.
So will Wainwright continue without the player and close friend who has been his personal catcher for most of the past 18 seasons?
“If it happens, it’ll never be the same,” he said candidly. “But, if it doesn’t, I’ll have had the greatest catcher ever catching me the whole time.”