JUPITER, Fla. • It wasn’t vintage Adam Wainwright. But it rarely has been on March 1. It was, however, a better Wainwright than the one who limped to the finish line last year with a bad elbow and a balky back.
The Cardinals’ veteran righthander allowed five runners in two innings in his first start of the spring Thursday. But the good news was that none of them scored in the Cardinals’ 3-3 tie with Minnesota.
Wainwright walked three and permitted two hits, including a game-opening double to right on a changeup off the end of the bat. But he also fanned three and tossed a double-play ball.
The total number of pitches for two frames was 47. “That’s too many,” said Wainwright.
At the end of last year, Wainwright’s fastball barely got into the 80s. On Thursday, Wainwright, who had minor elbow surgery in the off-season, threw six pitches at 90 or above, all of them in the first inning although most of those were out of the strike zone.
“Well, they should have swung more,” cracked Wainwright.
The outing, he said, “was a good first step. I’ve got to work on some timing and I’ll be fine. That’s what we’re here for — to get those all kinks ironed out. But we’re on the right track.”
Wainwright, 36, was most pleased with his ability to make key pitches with men on base. “I was behind in the count quite a few times,” he said. “I hit location about half the time, which is not nearly good enough. Close on a lot of things but not quite there on a lot of things.”
• CARDS TALK: Sound off about offseason moves
Wainwright said he was working on a few “wrinkles,” as he called them. He declined to be specific so as not to offer a “scouting report,” but pitching coach Mike Maddux offered that Wainwright was dropping down from his normal arm slot, trying to elevate his pitches more.
“I liked what I saw,” Maddux said. “He acted the traffic cop today. He had guys over the bases but he never gave in. He blended trying a couple new things but when push came to shove, he was back to the old tool box and pulled out some trustworthy weapons.”
That Wainwright was dropping down from his normal release point, Maddux said “was his idea. Some of the hitters will let us know if it’s a viable method.”
Manager Mike Matheny, calling Wainwright’s performance “good,” said, “He got into trouble and he did what Waino does, which is get better.”
Wainwright allowed that the new things he is trying to do this year were a “collaborative effort. There are a lot of guys rooting real hard for me to be real good again,” he said. “I’m one of those.”
When it was mentioned that Wainwright’s velocity had decreased last year when he was 12-5 with a 5.11 earned run average, he took a little umbrage and said, “News flash. Last year I was hurt. I don’t know if everybody knows that but I was throwing very differently than I will throw this year. I think you’ll see me closer to where I’ve been.”
Matheny admitted before the game that he didn’t know what velocity to expect from his longtime ace. “I think it’s an unknown to him because it fluctuated last season,” said Matheny. “There were times when it looked right and other times where it didn’t look like what he wanted it to.”
Even though he has had good enough velocity for most of his career, Wainwright has not been above throwing 62 mph curveballs or hesitating in his delivery, turning his body or even quick-pitching.
Matheny said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is breaking up hitters’ timing — if you can do it with your delivery, if you can do it with your release point, if you give them a different look.
“People who are able to stick around a long time — I won’t use Waino, but let’s use (44-year-old) Bartolo Colon. He completely changed. I remember him when he came up with Cleveland and he was throwing hard. Real hard. He’s had to morph into a pitcher who can get outs. He’s turned into an absolute turbo-sinker guy that wasn’t lighting up the (radar) gun at all but it was freakish. But he had to find that by using a different slot and then finger pressure to get the kind of movement he was looking for.
“He got a lot of big outs being able to do that and Waino’s got that ability with his breaking ball. And (if) you start mixing in that hook from different angles, it gets some notice.”
Wainwright listened intently as the Colon comparison was expressed and then he laughed.
“That is definitely the first time I’ve been compared to Bartolo. He’s having a great career so I can’t say that’s terrible,” he said.
“But Bartolo was a blazer. I’ve never been a blazer. I’ve been somewhat of a hard thrower but not a blazer like he was for sure.”
Matheny insisted, “There is no velocity we’re looking for (from Wainwright). We’re looking for how he feels and how (the hitters) look against him. We’ve had 100-an-hour throwers who couldn’t get people out. So, (velocity) is not the cure-all. It’s about making pitches and that’s something Adam does. And you cannot put a value on heart. Don’t rule out these guys who have been superstars. There’s something that has made them great for a long period of time.
“Some of it is talent. A lot of it is the character of who they are and how they compete. No one can question that about Adam Wainwright.”
Noting that Wainwright had ventured as high as 91 with his fastball, Matheny responded, “He’ll tell you there’s more than that. I think he’s got a little bit of a chip — like he’s got to prove something.”