BESIDES Aknee-buckling curveball that froze MVP candidate Carlos Beltran for the finalstrike of the National League Championship Series and a mid-90s fastball thatovermatched the Tigers in the World Series, Cardinals righthander AdamWainwright also has plenty of humility. When asked last week about thedifference between last spring and this one, he replied, "Last year youcould pick maybe two people off the street that knew who I was, and that wasprobably my mom and my brother."
Wainwright, 25,dominated October as a closer (four saves, no runs, 15 strikeouts in 9 2/3innings), but now the Cardinals are returning him to a starting role (the jobhe held for 135 of his 137 minor league appearances). Long on relievers butshort on starters in the wake of the free-agent departures of Jeff Suppan, JeffWeaver and Jason Marquis, the Cardinals felt they had little choice. "Heshould develop into a top-of-the-line starter," says St. Louis G.M. WaltJocketty, whose desperation for rotation help may yet prompt him to trade for aveteran such as the Phillies' Jon Lieber, the Yankees' Carl Pavano or theDodgers' Brad Penny.
Last spring was awatershed for Wainwright, who wondered whether he had the mental toughness toplay pro ball after he was cut from the U.S. Olympic qualifying team in 2003.For guidance he turned to '05 Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, who hadhis own doubts while recovering from shoulder injuries that forced him to missall of '03. "I told myself," says Wainwright, "I am not going backto the minor leagues."
Wainwright, ofcourse, did not. He steadily worked his way from middle man to setup man tocloser to postseason hero. Last week he allowed himself the small indulgence ofrecalling his ninth inning closeout of the Mets to clinch the NLCS. "Beglad to," he said, smiling. "The first two batters, I was a mess. I letmyself think what would happen if I didn't get the job done. That was the firsttime I did that all year. Every fan at Shea Stadium was crushing me. All year Inever heard the crowd. But I could hear them this time, and they were lettingme have it." After the first two Mets got hits, Wainwright told himself,Enough is enough. "And when Beltran came up," he says, "I knew Iwas going to get the job done. I said to myself, 'I am going to throw thiscurveball like it's the best curveball I ever threw in my life.'"
Now he's ready totake on a new challenge, with the old outlook.
BP's research indicates that a typical pitcher can expect a 25% jump in his ERAwhen he makes the transition from the bullpen to the rotation. Wainwright,though, can probably handle the switch as well as anyone. He's only one yearremoved from being a starter in the minors, his curve is a pitch that shouldhold up well with repeated use, and he's got an excellent defense behind him tohelp keep his pitch counts down. But some deterioration in his numbers--andperhaps a stint on the DL as he adjusts to the higher workload--isinevitable.
BOTTOM LINE: PECOTA projects a 9--8 record, and a 3.88 ERA in 25 starts.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
The World Series hero made 135 starts in the minors before going to thepen.