ST. LOUIS — Adam Wainwright can laugh about it now. He can sit up on a podium and smile, joke around and unveil his mastery of sarcasm.
It never looked back on Friday night as if this would be possible. Not after Wainwright had taken the ball in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals and surrendered six runs in 2 1/3 innings, all but costing St. Louis a chance to reach the NLCS and defend its World Series crown.
But after Wainwright left that game trailing 6-0, a funny thing happened. The St. Louis bullpen surrendered only one more run, and the offense staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in postseason baseball history. All of a sudden, a 6-0 deficit turned into a 9-7 victory and — to little credit of his own — Wainwright found himself celebrating in a champagne-soaked Cardinals clubhouse.
“It was not the performance I was expecting,” he said. “I promise you that.”
Lost in the postgame insanity that night was the story of a pitcher who struck out 10 and dominated in Game 1 against the Nationals but crumbled to pieces in Game 5. What was the difference? On Wednesday afternoon, the day before his Game 4 NLCS start against the San Francisco Giants (8:07 p.m. ET, ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com), a tongue-in-cheek Wainwright tried to explain.
“I completely choked,” he said. “All part of my plan. You lose the first two and you’re pitching great, you’ve got to wake the team up. I don’t want them out there sitting back on their heels. I purposely went out and pitched terribly to be unselfish.”
“And if you believe that … ”
He paused again.
“Just so everyone knows, that was in jest … ”
Of course it was. The reality, Wainwright explained, is that he left three balls over the middle of the plate and the Nationals crushed them. They belted a few of his better pitches, too. In his third straight start against the same team, perhaps he had become too predictable. Whatever the explanation, Wainwright was forced to spend the rest of that night sitting in the St. Louis dugout begging his teammates to give him another chance to pitch in this postseason.
On Thursday night against the Giants, that request will be formally fulfilled.
“He kept begging the guys, ‘Give me another shot. Give me another shot,'” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “Well, he’s got his other shot. He’s anxious to go out there and do something different.”
In eight career appearances against the Giants — six starts — Wainwright is 2-4 with a 3.04 ERA. He beat San Francisco on Aug. 9 at Busch Stadium, surrendering five hits and one run over seven innings.
As vital as Wainwright has been to the defending World Series champion Cardinals’ recent run of success, Thursday will mark his first start in a National League Championship Series. He pitched primarily out of the bullpen in 2006, striking out Detroit’s Brandon Inge to clinch the World Series for St. Louis that year. In last year’s World Series run, he was reduced to the role of spectator, missing the season after reconstructive elbow surgery in February.
For his career, he’s 1-0 with a 2.81 ERA in 12 postseason appearances.
“I think it’s unfortunate for me,” he said. “The times I’ve been ready to rock and pitching the best, we didn’t make it as far, for whatever reason.”
San Francisco will counter with its own redemption-seeking right-hander Wednesday: Tim Lincecum. After a regular season that saw the two-time Cy Young winner lead the National League in losses and in runs allowed, Lincecum has excelled out of the bullpen in the postseason, giving up just three hits and one run in 8 1/3 innings in the division series against Cincinnati.
“He’s the guy we want out there,” manager Bruce Bochy said.
Wainwright will be making his 33rd start of the season; and unless he again fails to get out of the third inning, he will eclipse the 200-inning mark in a season that began with rumblings of a Stephen Strasburg-like innings limit. But as the season went on, Wainwright seemed to get stronger. And talk of an innings limit quickly died down.
Now, he insists his arm is as strong as it has ever felt this time of year. And although his fastball might be a tick or two slower than it’s been in the past, he says his curveball is the best it’s ever been.
“You have to learn how to pitch when you’re feeling bad or feeling tired or your arm is hanging,” Wainwright said. “If you don’t learn to pitch in those moments, you’re doing yourself a disservice and your team a disservice. There’s valuable lessons to be learned battling through that stuff.”
Just as there are valuable lessons to be learned from bouncing back from disastrous performances such as the one Wainwright endured in Game 5.
“Our team picked me up and threw me on their back the last game,” he said. “I didn’t do well. But I look forward to the next challenge. I’ll be ready.”