Ben Frederickson: Cardinals' decision to bring back age-defying Wainwright looks smarter by the start

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JUPITER, Fla. — Father Time must be furious.

He bit Adam Wainwright’s right elbow years ago in an attempt to stop him before he turned 30, and Wainwright came back stronger than ever before.

He once nipped Wainwright’s Achilles’ heel in the batter’s box, and not only did Wainwright come back again, he won a Silver Slugger award.

He spent the better part of two seasons incubating doubt and stirring skepticism as he preyed upon Wainwright’s arms and legs, elbows and hamstrings, to the point the pitcher started wondering if Father Time had finally won.

He hadn’t.

Because Wainwright is still here, and he has a bounce in his step, a twinkle in his eye, a body that feels great and a mind that is completely at ease.

Goodness, don’t the Cardinals look smart for refusing to let the financial damage sustained during the pandemic-challenged 2020 season become the reason they allowed the 39-year-old free agent to pitch like this somewhere else.

Not for the sake of nostalgia, either. For the sake of contention. The Cardinals needed to re-sign Wainwright this offseason. They need him even more now than they did back then.

While Miles Mikolas has been working his way back from a shoulder setback, and Kwang Hyun Kim has been working his way back from a bout of back tightness, and Jack Flaherty has been splitting his work between Grapefruit League starts and backfield sessions, and Carlos Martinez has been getting hit hard, and John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon have been trying to seize the opportunities that have presented themselves, Wainwright has been straight dealing.

His impressive, efficient innings have come with an invitation to the Cardinals to keep the innings coming. Pile them on. He knows younger and less experienced pitchers will likely be protected with inning limits and shorter starts, especially early, due to the chaos that was the pandemic-scarred 2020 season. That increases the value of a workhorse. Wainwright’s ready to run.

“If I get hurt, to heck with it,” Wainwright said. “I’m too old to care about it anymore. I’m just going out there trying to compete. If I get hurt, it’s been a great ride, a great run. No harm, no foul. The coaching staff is kind of looking at me like, ‘Well, he’s got a point. He is really old.’ We’ve got to nurture these young guys. Rightfully so. If you need me to go 12, I’ll go 14. Want me to go 14? I’ll go 16. Whatever you need, that’s what I want to do this year, and more so. I just don’t want to have any restrictions. For years I had restrictions put on me not by the coaching staff, but by health. With health not being a problem anymore, let me go.”

There have been times in the past where Wainwright sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into feeling good. This is not one of those times. He feels good and he looks good. He’s looked ready since the moving trucks rolled into Roger Dean Stadium. He’s looked ready since the start of last season, when he was the club’s most steadfast and reliable starter during a COVID-challenged grind. This spring has been an extension of that. Except he somehow looks better.

“I feel great,” Wainwright said. “It doesn’t make any sense. The only thing I can point to is the incredible staff that has worked with me, the dieticians, the strength coordinators and strength and training staff, and the Lord above. Those are the only reasons I’m still doing what I’m doing at the level I’m doing it, and feeling better every single time I go out there. Every year I’ve gotten further removed from feeling like I was retired, I feel like I’m kind of turning back the clock a little bit. So, just got to keep me there. That’s what I told our staff. Keep me there, and we are going to do some fun things this year.”

Before Tuesday’s 5-5 Grapefruit League tie between the Cardinals and the Nationals went wacky, Wainwright turned in six one-run innings and seven strikeouts. Former Cubs nemesis Kyle Schwarber jumped him for a solo homer in the second inning. And? Wainwright responded with back-to-back 1-2-3 innings. Wainwright walked Schwarber and surrendered a single to Luis Garcia in the fifth. And? He ended the threat with a five-pitch strikeout, looking, of Alex Avila and a harmless groundout from Yadiel Hernandez.

“He’s in control of what he’s doing,” manager Mike Shildt said. “And he’s enjoying himself.”

Through his five starts and 19.2 spring innings so far, he’s allowed only four runs on nine hits. He’s walked three while striking out 20. Twenty! One of those strikeouts Tuesday came against potential NL MVP Juan Soto, who went nothing-for-three with the K and two groundouts. Soto, for the record, was born 17 years, 1 month and 26 days after Wainwright. What’s that line about age being nothing but a number?

“In 2017 and 2018, both years I thought I was toast,” Wainwright said, laughing. “And rightfully so. Man, everything hurt. My elbow felt horrible. My knees felt bad. My back felt bad. Inflammation completely filled up my whole body. I lost all mobility. Couldn’t run anymore. Just terrible. Terrible. I was 36 or 37, and felt like I was 47 or 57. And now, I’m 39, about to turn 40 this year, and I feel like I’m 30, honestly. I don’t know if my body has felt this good, ever, when I’m pitching. Back in the day, I had a little more gas in the tank to get a little higher in the velocity, but my body didn’t feel this good.”

Imagine where the Cardinals’ shaky starting pitching would be right now without Wainwright, who is ready to eat innings while others heal and find their footing.

Imagine how a continued late-career resurgence from Wainwright could build a sleeper case for Cooperstown consideration.

Imagine if instead of preparing to start the home opener at Busch Stadium for the sixth time, Wainwright was having this kind of spring performance in some other team’s camp. Or sitting at home on his couch in Georgia, retired.

Father time will have to wait. Wainwright has big plans, and one of them arrives on April 8.

“Starting a home opener is as big of a deal, or a bigger deal, for me than starting opening day,” Wainwright said. “Just because it’s so special to pitch at Busch Stadium in front of our people, in front of our fans. They do such a great job of making me feel loved there. They really do, over the years. Even when I was really hanging, struggling bad. They always made me feel loved. I love pitching in front of our fans. I can’t wait to go out and compete in front of them.”