JUPITER, Fla. — By the time the ball cleared the right-center fence the Cardinals’ fans, caught between cheering for a Cardinals All-Star hitter but against a Cardinals All-Star pitcher, had committed and roared with applause.
Taking his cue, Nolan Arenado raised his batting helmet to the crowd.
Behind him, Adam Wainwright stepped off the mound, bent down to pinch off some turf, and, like a golfer, made a flourish of tossing some grass blades into the breeze.
“Wind-aided,” he said later.
For the first time this spring, the entertainer could put on a show.
And for an audience.
“Felt like I was on a stage,” Wainwright said later at his locker in the team’s clubhouse. “I was having fun. I was trying to perform a little bit. The fans are back! Gosh, how great is that? Feels like baseball again. And they were actually real and they weren’t even like pictures of people.”
The Cardinals began their dash for opening day with the first official workout of spring training Monday on the back fields of Roger Dean Stadium.
Fans could see Wainwright and his peers pitch up close for the first time since March 2020. The whole roster, minus catcher Yadier Molina and two other absences, took the field all on the same day, not pitchers and catchers one week joined by position players the next. There’s no time for that.
The Cardinals will have four workouts before their first exhibition game Friday, and the usual slate of around 28 Grapefruit League games has been cleaved to 15 as Major League Baseball races the calendar to start a full regular season after this winter’s 99-day lockout.
Manager Oliver Marmol, in his first address to the full clubhouse, was brief and pointed. One player called his message “blunt,” and that was a compliment. He used the word “conviction” often to describe both a culture and a quality of play. Beyond that, he let the schedule do the talking. Fewer days won’t mean less of a focus on the defense, baserunning, and fundamentals that the Cardinals believe is the bedrock of their brand and a buoy in recent seasons when the offseason has been subpar.
“If you don’t place an emphasis on it today then it just kind of fades away as other things start to come, you start competing games, (and) it just fizzles away,” Marmol said. “Players will always find important what the staff and the manager find important. And if you can’t place an emphasis on those things like defense and baserunning, just the intricacies of the game, then by the time you get into June you’re not playing great baseball.”
Because of undisclosed personal reasons, Molina was not in camp to catch Wainwright’s first throws, per tradition. The Cardinals hope to know within a few days when Molina will join the team. Relievers Giovanny Gallegos and Genesis Cabrera also had not arrived by Monday. Gallegos had a personal commitment in Mexico he needed a day to complete, and Cabrera’s flight was canceled, delaying his travel by a day. Lost days are magnified with a short runway.
As the days lost to the lockout mounted, Wainwright did start to think about the opportunity he might lose with Molina. The two longtime Cardinals are 20 games away from tying the major-league record for starts by a battery, 21 from surpassing Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich’s 324 together. Twice Major League Baseball cancelled series and the potential for a canceled month meant canceled starts, and canceled starts meant …
“That was definitely going through my mind,” Wainwright said. “I was trying to figure out how many months that was. Five starts a month, four times, we need 20 to tie. … That was part of it. Understanding what was best for players five, six, 10 years from now and how that was worth maybe not setting a really cool record.”
Those series were restored or rescheduled and, with health, history awaits.
In familiar fashion, the first pitcher to keep pace with the accelerated schedule and take the mound to face teammates in a live batting practice session was Wainwright — the expected opening-day starter April 7 at Busch Stadium, the leader, the showman, the ace.
He snapped a curve to Tyler O’Neill that the outfielder ignored.
“How do not swing at that?” Wainwright asked.
“You’ve got to get it on the plate,” O’Neill replied.
Wainwright ended O’Neill’s at-bat with a called strike three.
“That was on the plate,” said the veteran.
Laughter rippled through the crowd gathered to watch on Field 3.
At least one of the young pitchers watching from the dugout grinned.
This is what the manager had told them about.
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch our guys sit there and watch him do something as simple PFP (pitcher’s fielding practice) and realize that looks different than I do it — the attention to detail is different,” Marmol said. “There is just this intensity and conviction to his process that is hard to match. And our challenge to that group in there today is match it. Match it.”
When the lockout started Dec. 2, club officials and coaches had to cease communication with players on the 40-man roster. The Cardinals closed the app that is used for teamwide announcements and conversations. So many of the players started one of their own. Wainwright described a group chat most of the big leaguers kept going so they could create their own offseason program and encourage a spring training pace, especially as February became March before the first official workout.
“You have to be ready when the call is made, so we stressed that over and over in our group chats to make sure you’re taking at-bats, make sure you’re facing hitters,” Wainwright said. “Be on the normal schedule when you normally would.”
Many players relocated weeks ago to Jupiter, Fla. The entire infield — around the horn from Paul Goldschmidt to Tommy Edman to Paul DeJong to Arenado — has been in Florida for more than week, sometimes working out together. Arenado offered outfielder Lars Nootbaar a place to stay so he could continue his prep in Florida. One player said he felt ahead of schedule because of the number of at-bats against big-league pitchers he’d taken at a nearby facility.
Wainwright went back to school.
The Cardinals’ 40-year-old righthander practiced on a baseball field he helped design with the baseball team at his alma mater, Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga. He didn’t wear his high school number — No. 6 is retired there too, after all — but was outfitted with GA gear and aided by catchers eager to be on the bending end of his curveball. Wainwright had “teammates” the same age as his oldest daughter. And they helped him be ready, ready enough to throw live BP to Arenado, Goldschmidt, and O’Neill. Ready enough to throw more than planned.
Having already skied that pitch over the fence in right-center off Wainwright, Arenado wanted one more at-bat, and Wainwright obliged.
He let Jack Flaherty, watching near the backstop and behind a screen, call the final pitch. Flaherty called for a changeup.
Arenado roped it to left.
“But he called a hanging changeup up in the zone,” Wainwright said. “Should have called a good changeup down and away.”
Wainwright bounded off the mound and playfully flung his glove at Arenado.
They shared a hug and a laugh.
The crowd joined with clapping.
Then the All-Stars got back to work.
“This is a great day to start to practice winning,” Wainwright said. “We’re practicing wining right now. I don’t think it’s good practice to go out there and lose 18 spring training games, or however (many) we’re going to play, and then go into the season and expect we’re going to win. You’ve got to go out and expect to win here to expect to win the regular season. You can’t act like things are going to magically fall into place when the lights come on. When you leave spring training, everything needs to be ready to rock.”
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