JUPITER, Fla. • With a mix of pitches all funneling toward his curveball and a willingness to throw them at various heights, Adam Wainwright had enough at his fingertips Wednesday to get Washington’s uber-hitter Bryce Harper out three different times.
All in the same at-bat.
During their nine-pitch duel in the first inning, Harper chopped a curveball down the first-base line for what appeared to be a routine groundout. It was called foul. With a full count, Wainwright appeared to get strike three against Harper, but umpire Angel Hernandez had called time. The third time, Wainwright went to the charm — the curveball. Harper swung and missed for an out that couldn’t be taken away.
“I left a few tricks in the cupboard,” Wainwright said. “I threw a few different looks at him. With those good guys, I’m not just ever going to give them one look. I’m trying out a few things, so I wanted to see those good hitters’ reaction to them.”
In his second start of spring training, Wainwright struck out four in 3 2/3 innings, allowed one run on three hits, and showed some of the ways he is reinventing his use of pitches and where he puts them. Washington starter Max Scherzer, Wainwright’s opposite number Wednesday at Roger Dean Stadium, took notice. Scherzer, the most dominant and decorated righthanded pitcher in the league, has been a longtime friend of Wainwright, and the two are kindred spirits when it comes to tinkering with new pitches and making old pitches do new tricks.
A year ago, Scherzer had a finger injury that forced him to toy with a three-finger fastball. On Wednesday, as he struck out four and allowed a homer in four innings against the Cardinals, he threw more curveballs to see how it behaved. And between his innings, he spied Wainwright.
“Only so I could trash talk on him,” Scherzer said.
He texted Wainwright earlier Wednesday a gif that had Laurence Fishburne’s character in “Matrix” striking a martial arts pose and gesturing with his hand, “Come get me.”
Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, admitted some curiosity about how Wainwright was pitching after last year’s bloated ERA and bruised elbow.
“There are different little things I can see in his game,” said Scherzer, a Mizzou alum and Parkway Central grad. “I think I know what he’s working on. Of course it could be effective. If you do something different and you’re able to command the baseball, you can always keep hitters off balance. They never know what’s coming. Especially for him with his curveball. That’s a game-changer.”
It was a game-shaper Wednesday.
His 63rd and final pitch of the game was an out on the curveball, and three of his final four outs came on the curveball. He struck out Harper with the curve, and then finished his second inning with back-to-back strikeouts on curveballs. Pitching coach Mike Maddux called Wainwright “pretty thrifty.”
“I thought he was creative with it,” manager Mike Matheny said after his team’s 4-3 victory. “He got outs with them, but he used fastballs and changeups and cutters and sinkers to get there. We’ve seen him before where we see a heavy curveball usage, and he’s getting lots and lots of outs. I think he used everything pretty well, and was still able to get outs with a breaking ball.”
With that pitch in his hand, Wainwright was able to use others to set up hitters for it — or get them with something else when they were waiting for it. In the first inning, former teammate Matt Adams hit with a run in and a runner at second. Wainwright got to 2-2 against him, but instead of a curve, Adams saw a cutter and only nicked it for a strikeout. In the third inning, Adams got ahead in the count 1-0, and Wainwright went back to a similar spot that he got the strikeout. This time with a sinker, at 87 mph. The ball didn’t come back over the plate like before, so Adams got the end of the bat on it and flied out easily to right field.
Into that mix, Wainwright also elevated his fastball and got a couple of pop-ups from that same angle that he brings the curveball. That’s the area he wants to be — able to work low like he did Adams and up high, top shelf, to accentuate the curve.
“I’m fine admitting this part to you as far as a scouting report goes,” Wainwright said. “I want to be able to work top and bottom effectively to where they can’t just always look down. They can’t always look up. They don’t know where it’s going to come and at what angle it’s going to be at, and what spin it’s going to have and the way it’s going to dive or duck.”
Several hours before the game, Matheny talked about how he enjoys watching Scherzer pitch because the intensity and focus on the mound is palpable. It’s also instructional. He has urged some of the younger pitchers to watch Scherzer like, say, Wainwright would have watched Chris Carpenter, or Chris Carpenter would have watched Pat Hentgen. The manager said it’s enough for a young pitcher “to mimic it, fake it for a while, until you actually feel it and then you can actually do it.”
Like Wainwright, Scherzer improvises often.
He’ll alter angles, he digs into the data to determine new or different ways to throw or use pitches, and he suggested Wednesday that 2018 will just be more evolution. He buzzed the Cardinals with a 96 mph fastball early, then downshifted to offspeed stuff. Because he could.
“You always have to reinvent yourself and keep evolving as a pitcher,” Scherzer said. “Every single year you have to come up with new ways to get guys out because everybody game-plans against you, every little pattern that you throw. With the data they have now the line between good and bad is shrinking every single year.”
When he’s been at his healthiest, at his strongest, and at his most masterful on the mound, Wainwright will shift his delivery or even the speed of his pitches during at-bats. Against Harper, Wainwright has moved where he stands on the rubber — in the same at-bat — just to give Harper a different look or angle on what might be the same pitch. Or might not. As Wainwright looks to assert his spot in the rotation after a year that ended with elbow trouble and sagging velocity, he feels his pitches are more familiar, but that he could use them in unfamiliar ways. That could mean pitching backward, playing off the curve, not the fastball.
That could be wrinkles like he tried to show Harper.
After getting the groundout from Harper that wasn’t and seeing the former MVP “spoil” some good pitches, Wainwright altered his timing. He froze on the mound to hold the runner, but also to see if he could get Harper antsy in the box. Wainwright said later if he had thrown the pitch a beat sooner, neither Harper nor the ump would have had a chance to call time, but would have wanted it. That didn’t work.
He always has the curve to turn to.
“We’re trying to do different things that maybe we may or maybe we don’t do during the season,” Wainwright said. “Let the hitters do the talking. (They’ll) let us know what works and what doesn’t work. I’m always trying to find new ways to work everything.”