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Play it again, Waino: Rejuvenated by reinvention, veteran returns to Cardinals for 2020

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One of the things Adam Wainwright promised to give the young starters and wanted from them in return was honesty, and so here was Jack Flaherty, all of two years in the rotation, approaching Wainwright in the dugout this past August about to test that boundary.

He thought Wainwright could be better, pitch with more confidence, and there was no other way to say it than to say it, in person, at Busch Stadium, during a game.

“There was definitely a moment where it’s at that point, do I really say this? Is this really my place? Do I know how he’s going to react?” Flaherty recalled Tuesday. “At that point I have to be ready to expect whatever reaction he has. I’m committed, and I’ll be what I always want to be, honest. He gave me back that look, his look he gets when he’s like, ‘Are you sure?’ It was like, for a moment, ‘Why did I just say that?’”

That look was followed by a nod.

That nod was followed by a month that brought Wainwright back for a year.

The Cardinals and Wainwright, one of the most successful starters in club history, finalized a one-year, $5-million contract for 2020 that, with incentives, can reach $10 million. Wainwright returns for a 17th season in the organization just one year removed from being convinced injury had taken baseball away from him. Wainwright, 38, made 31 starts this past summer, went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA, and on Tuesday traced his late-season surge for five consecutive wins and two superb postseason starts to a confidence jolt from young Jack.

“He pulled me aside, which takes some (guts) do to that to a 14-year vet and you’re a second-year player, and he said, ‘We need you to be what you can be and I think you can be better than you’ve been, and you need to believe in yourself again,’” Wainwright recalled. “It was kind of like right out of Chris Carpenter’s mouth. It was such a good challenge for me. At first, I wanted to rustle up my feathers and kind of give him a stare down. But I kind looked at him and said, ‘You’re right. You’re exactly right.’”

The contract had been discussed over the past week and completed as Cardinals execs began the first full day of the annual General Manager Meetings. The Cardinals met with Yadier Molina’s agent on Tuesday and learned that the Gold Glove-winning catcher and franchise icon would like to play beyond the end of his contract, in 2020. Molina would like to pursue a contract through 2022. He would turn 40 near the All-Star break of that summer. The Cardinals will explore an extension with Molina in spring training.

Wainwright and Molina, the battery that won a World Series championship as youngsters like Flaherty in 2006, have been together longer than any pitcher-catcher tandem in club history. Wainwright said the only sunsets they’ve discussed sharing are on family vacations to Europe. The righthander sees this contract as possibly his final one — though he’s not committing to a farewell tour in 2020.

“I’m playing it this year at a time,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Wainwright said he only entertained an offer from the Cardinals, but had they signed another starter he would have explored the market for a two-year deal for another team, preferably one he had some connection to. A year ago, Wainwright sought a return to the Cardinals by writing out a proposal on a napkin that became a $2-million base salary with incentives to reach $10 million. He reached all of them.

This year’s deal more than doubles the guaranteed salary and allows him to max-out the contract at $10 million by making 28 starts. He gets bonuses along the way for 20 starts and 25 starts.

It was about 20 or so starts into this past season that Wainwright was able to shed the doubt that had lodged itself in his elbow, like the bone bruise that cost him parts of two seasons.

“When you rear back to fire a baseball toward the catcher’s mitt you can’t have any reservations if you’re going to get all that you can out of your stuff,” Wainwright said. “There was a little part of me early on that was like, ehhhhh, am I really OK? Like, I think I’m OK. I’m telling people I’m OK. But am I really OK? … This year in September and October especially was the first time in three years that I felt like I was a force out on the mound.”

He credited Carpenter and Flaherty with recharging that confidence and rookie Dakota Hudson with “friendly wagers” to goose competition. At several points in the season, Carpenter urged Wainwright to believe in his stuff and not worry it wasn’t enough.

Flaherty urged him to believe in his staff.

That took the same kind of leap from Wainwright that Flaherty had made stepping toward him. As part of his recovery from the bone bruise that cost him velocity and left him with only eight starts in 2018, Wainwright shifted his delivery — a longer arm swing — and re-engineered how he used his pitches. Nearly two out of every five pitches he threw this season were curveballs, and he’s never thrown fewer fastballs in a season than his previous two. In an age of high velocity and high pitches, Wainwright averaged less than 90 mph and relied on sink. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, called Wainwright’s reinvention as he reclaimed his health “not only impressive but almost miraculous.”

“There was part of me that when I watch Jordan Hicks and Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas and Carlos Martinez and all these hard-throwers, just pitching really well with nasty, nasty stuff, and there was a small part of me that goes, ‘Man, I can’t do that,’” Wainwright said. “I’m just not that nasty. I don’t throw 98 mph with super sink. I certainly don’t throw 105 like Jordan. And these other guys are just hitting 94-95 with their fastballs. Part of that process for me throughout the season was being OK with being different.”

Wainwright’s return makes it possible for the Cardinals to sport a familiar rotation. The team would like Martinez to take the one open spot in the rotation, and they are monitoring the righthander’s winter program to determine how viable he can be as a starter. Mozeliak said the team will explore the free-agent market for a starter in the coming month and be ready to move on a starter around December’s winter meetings if one is a fit or, due to Martinez’s progress, one is needed. On Tuesday, Mozeliak said there’s always room for improved pitching.

Wainwright provided it when they needed it the most. Before a hiccup in his final start of September, Wainwright was polishing a bid to be the league’s pitcher of the month. In October, he was arguably the Cardinals’ best starter. He pitched 7 2/3 scoreless against Atlanta, and then in the National League Championship Series struck out 11 in seven innings against Washington, the eventual World Series champs.

That crisp sensation of autumn was hard to ignore.

“Feeling those juices flowing like that for the first time in a few years – what an empowering feeling,” Wainwright said. “It was something that I wasn’t quite ready to walk away from.”

50 greatest Cardinals pitchers

Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright celebrates an inning-ending  strikeout in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta on Oct. 6, 2019 at Busch Stadium. Photo by David Carson,

Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright celebrates an inning-ending  strikeout in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta on Oct. 6, 2019 at Busch Stadium. Photo by David Carson,

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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