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‘The Devil’s Lair’: Why Cardinals Adam Wainwright won’t miss Cincinnati’s ‘cursed’ ballpark

CINCINNATI — Upriver from the football stadium known as “The Jungle” and downhill from The Genius of Water fountain there sits, along the winding banks of the Ohio, a 20-year-old, 42,271-seat gathering spot nestled into a quiet, cozy spot of land. Toothbrush stadium lights reach for the clouds, Skyline coney dogs call to your tummy and beyond center field stand twin, fireworks-belching power stacks that only caught on fire once, they say.

It’s the American Ball Park that also claims to be Great.

Adam Wainwright knows it by a different name.

“The Devil’s Lair,” he said. “There’s a curse on this place, a deadly curse.”

Burned but not beaten Tuesday night at the ballpark that has soured into a nemesis, Wainwright saw his ERA in Cincinnati rise even as the Cardinals kept the Reds down for an 8-5 victory. The right-hander allowed four doubles and a home run, and he still left with the lead to claim his 197th career victory — and his first against the Reds since 2019. He had gone seven starts vs. the Reds without a win, and in his previous visit to Cincinnati, he mused about it being his last visit to Cincinnati.

Wainwright (2-0) allowed five runs on eight hits through 5 2/3 innings, and if he’s thrown his final pitch at Great American Ball Park, leaves with a 5.83 ERA in 120 1/3 innings. It is his highest ERA at any ballpark where he’s pitched more than two games. He’s seen enough games blow up at Cincinnati’s ballpark that when it comes down he’d like to be present.

“Yes, I would like to press the button,” Wainwright said, wryly.

The Cardinals received two solo homers from Paul Goldschmidt, three RBIs from Tommy Edman and seven runs in the first four innings to give Wainwright a head start.

He needed it.

“Every year coming in here, I’m like, ‘You know what? Screw that. I’m not giving in to that,’” Wainwright said. “I’m not that mentally weak where a park can get in your head. And every year, I leave here saying this is the Devil’s Lair again. I went into it and said, ‘I know I’ve had a bad history here. But today is a new day. It’s really hard to hit a baseball. It’s not easy to score runs in the big leagues.’ I came in with such a positive attitude.

“And it’s still the Devil’s Lair.”

In 21 starts and 23 games at GABP, Wainwright has allowed a total of 78 earned runs, 18 home runs and 125 hits to the Reds. It’s a ballpark that has vexed and maddened his mentors too. John Smoltz and Chris Carpenter both fumed about slippery baseballs that weren’t rubbed up with enough mud more than a decade ago. Back in 2011, Carpenter questioned the condition of the mound and was irritated by smoke that lingered over the field after a Reds home run.

Wainwright mentioned the mound Tuesday and how the crest of the mound, from his vantage point, creates a different slope from the pitching rubber. In Colorado, where he’s had success, he adjusts his aim on pitches and targets his breaking ball a little lower, knowing that it’s going to bite a little less.

In Cincinnati, he feels the mound requires a similar recalibration.

“Here you have to really think like mid-shin to get the ball at the knees,” Wainwright said. “And one of these days, I’ll execute that.”

The dimensions of the ballpark also play a role, squeezing in as it did between the girdle of two other stadiums, one since demolished. Borrowing from miniature golf and pinball, Great American Ball Park has the replica steamboat and smokestacks in center and can ignite instant scoring bonanzas. There’s a two-story wall in left field, but it’s 379 feet to left-center gap. From 2003, the year Wainwright was traded to the Cardinals and GABP opened, through 2020, more home runs were hit at Cincy’s ballpark (3,713) than any other.

“It’s definitely a good place to hit as evidenced by my homers that barely squeaked out of here,” Goldschmidt said of his home run over the left-field wall in the first inning and second over the right-field wall in the third. “The ball you just miss here has a better chance … of going out, especially down the lines.”

“And,” Wainwright sighed, “the wind was blowing straight out.”

For his fourth start of a season delayed by injury, Wainwright arrived at GABP with statistics that suggested he would be vulnerable to a classic, devilish GABP roasting.

The right-hander with a career groundball rate of 47.6% had seen that drop to a career-low 33.9% so far this season. His fly ball rate was up to 39%, which would be a career-high for any season he spent as a starter. Mixed with his career at GABP and last year’s 7.27 ERA in 17 1/3 innings in Cincy, and seemed like a bad chemistry lab experiment — combustible.

It would have required an overwrite of the rotation, but the Cardinals could have moved Wainwright’s starts around so that he went Sunday against Los Angeles at home, skipped Cincinnati entirely and reappeared free and clear of GABP on the complete other side of Ohio in Cleveland on Friday. Manager Oliver Marmol said that was not entertained, not with Cincinnati’s right-handed lineup and the matchup with Wainwright’s curveball.

“It’s something we all know going into it,” Marmol said. “Think about all of the things he’s been able to overcome in his career. Pitching well in Cincinnati to this point hasn’t been one of them. We smiled about it even before the game. It was good for him to go out there and give us what he did.”

Though it was not without some singeing.

A two-out flair to right for a base hit in the first inning was followed by an RBI double. A double in the third was followed by a two-run homer, Matt McLain’s first home run in the majors. In the fifth, a one-out flip to left for a base hit was followed by another double.

“Two outs, nobody on, again. Bloop hit, again. Followed by an extra-base hit, again,” Wainwright listed. “All the bloops were followed by an extra-base hit. Too many extra-base hits. That’s because this place is from the devil.

“I’ll just dust my sandals off and move on from this place.”

What kept him in the game was the cooler innings between the hellish ones. In the second, he retired the side in order, two of the Reds on groundouts. When the Cardinals got a two-run triple from Edman as part of a three-run fourth inning, Wainwright tamed GABP with two quick groundouts and a routine fly ball to right field. Through one stretch of the game, he got six groundouts in the span of 11 batters.

That was at the same time the Cardinals scored six runs.

“I really wanted to have a kill inning where we put that zero up there and end any kind of momentum they have coming back,” Wainwright said. “That zero is important. I’m finding ways to give up runs which means — here comes another proclamation — I’m about to go on a run.”

Not here.

Not in the lair.

Wainwright raved about the golf courses in the area, said there are fine restaurants to eat including one that hosted a pivotal team meeting not too many seasons ago, and he complimented the people of Cincinnati, except the one guy who wished that he would give up seven or eight runs without a strikeout on opening day 2014. Wainwright pitched seven shutout innings that game, struck out nine and won the game 1-0 on a solo home run hit by Yadier Molina. As the chef’s kiss on the day, Molina’s homer came off Johnny Cueto. Wainwright pitched eight scoreless in his next visit to Cincinnati later in 2014.

It was the devil’s lure.

Since 2014, he had won only once there until Tuesday.

“I guess this is to keep me humble,” said Wainwright, who is retiring at season’s end. “The Lord doesn’t want me getting too big of a head, I guess. Makes me come to Cincinnati a couple of times a year.”

But maybe not to start, not again.

“One can only hope,” Wainwright said.

St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright throws during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright throws during the first inning of the team’s baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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