Three Strikes: Adam Wainwright isn't same pitcher he used to be

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ST. LOUIS — After a brilliant September in which he bounced back from a tired arm and sore elbow, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright entered the postseason with 10 days of rest – an apparent benefit for a 33-year-old who had thrown 503 2/3 innings in the past two seasons. But two starts into the postseason, and coming off Saturday night’s 3-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the NLCS, it’s very apparent that Wainwright isn’t the same pitcher who has been the rock of the St. Louis rotation.

•​ Complete postseason schedule, TV listings and results

Wainwright needed 200 pitches to labor through nine innings in his two postseason starts, the opening games of both the LDS and the LCS. In those nine innings he has allowed 21 baserunners and nine runs, eight of them earned.

Adam Wainwright's struggles could loom large, cost Cardinals NLCS

After a shaky LCS Game 1 against Los Angeles in which he allowed 11 hits (one fewer than his career high) and did not feature his fastball, Wainwright told me the issue was not related to the condition of his elbow. “It was command,” he said the day before Game 1 of the NLCS. “And I will have command tomorrow.”

Except, he didn’t. He couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning for a second straight start. He walked more batters (three) than he struck out (two). He threw 27 pitches with two strikes and obtained only two third strikes on them – one of them on a missed bunt by the opposing pitcher, Madison Bumgarner.

In the NLDS, the Cardinals flipped the series on its head by coming from behind to beat Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. This is a best-of-seven, not a best-of-five, and Wainwright still managed to keep his team in the game despite not having his best stuff – so the impact isn’t quite the same as when St. Louis jumped Kershaw. But the defeat by Wainwright has to diminish the Cardinals more than what an otherwise ordinary loss would do. The club has to be concerned with the way Wainwright is throwing the baseball. He has thrown by far the most number of innings in baseball over the past two years. He has had trouble finishing off hitters. He has a recent history of experiencing soreness in the back of his elbow (not the same warning sign that led to his 2011 Tommy John surgery).

“He was working deeper counts.” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after the Cardinals’ NLCS Game 1 loss. “You start looking at that pitch count in the middle innings, and that’s not very typical of Adam when everything feels right. We’re talking feel for the pitches, not so many as feel health‑wise.”

Over the next two days the Cardinals will have to monitor how Wainwright came out of the start relative to the strength of his elbow and arm. They do have Michael Wacha – or even Marco Gonzales if he is not needed in relief the next three games – as options in case Wainwright is skipped. But Wainwright, as he showed in September, is more than capable of winning baseball games when he does not have his 'A' stuff. His competitiveness and track record actually puts the Cardinals in a more difficult spot than it would if he were a run-of-the-mill rotation filler. The club trusts him to find a way to win, even if he is running on empty.

“I thought he did a nice job of fighting without his best stuff again,” Matheny said, “and that’s very consistent with what we’ve seen if him for many years now. He goes out there and finds a way to get it done.”

2. Pence's Slump

It turns out there is a diagnosed medical reason why San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence is America’s most beloved unorthodox baseball player: Scheuermann’s Disease. Pence, known for his quirky movements in the batter’s box, in the field and on the bases, said he found out last year he has the condition that causes an increased rounding of the spine in his upper back, which is why, as Pence said, "My T-spine has no flexibility."

Scheuermann’s Disease actually is a condition, not a disease, that is named after the doctor who identified it almost 100 years ago. It typically occurs in adolescent males at the end of their growth spurt. It causes the natural arching of the upper spine to increase.

Pence said he was diagnosed with the condition only last year when the Giants put him through a physical as a condition of the five-year, $90-million extension he signed on Sept. 29, 2013. Until then, the Giants, unaware of the condition, had been working with Pence to try to improve the flexibility of his spine – with no success.

Bumgarner shines again, lifts Giants to NLCS Game 1 win over Cardinals

Pence is known for his unusual gait, swing and throwing motion – which have a stiffness that can be explained by Scheuermann’s Disease. Boston Bruins hockey player Milan Lucic was diagnosed with Scheuermann’s Disease as an adolescent. Lucic is known for his awkward but effective skating style – a kind of hockey equivalent of Pence.

Pence, 31, is also known for his durability. He has played in 162 games each of the past two years, though he did miss one start this year. He said that one game he started on the bench convinced him that he needs to be more judicious about his playing time. Pence was 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, which the Giants won 3-0 on Saturday night. Since Sept. 13, and including the postseason, Pence is hitting .127 with one home run in 79 at-bats.

"I saw this year it hindered my performance," Pence said of playing every day. "My body starting locking up."

3. News and Notes

Another reason why home-field advantage isn’t worth nearly as much in baseball as it is in other sports. Through 19 postseason games this year, home teams are 8-11, including 0-3 in the LCS.

After years of laying groundwork, Royals' dream season materializing

• Memo to the look-like-they’ll-never-lose again Royals: you might want to think about slowing down this postseason train of yours. Kansas City will have five or six days of rest heading into Game 1 of the World Series if it dispatches Baltimore in four or five games. Over the previous eight years, five teams have entered the World Series after five or more days of rest. Those teams (2012 Tigers, 2009 Phillies, 2008 Phillies, 2007 Rockies, 2006 Tigers) are 7-17 in World Series games – a .292 winning percentage. Indeed, the team with more rest going into the past eight World Series has lost seven of those eight matchups. I know Kansas City has waited 29 years to see a World Series, so you take it any way you can get it – but, just sayin'…

•​ Bumgarner and Wainwright are good friends who share a love of hunting and fishing – not to mention occasional texts between them. “I texted him the other day and told him I was going to throw him my eephus pitch,” Bumgarner said. Of course, he didn’t – he struck him out.

• The Cardinals had better play a clean game in Game 2. The Giants are now 13-0 in the postseason under manager Bruce Bochy when the opponent gives them at least one unearned run. In 37 postseason games under Bochy, they have enjoyed an unearned run differential of +16 (22-6).

• Just sayin', Part 2: Bumgarner through his age 24 season in the regular season: 67-49 with a 3.06 ERA and 229 walks in 151 games. Clayton Kershaw through his age 24 season: 61-37 with a 2.79 ERA and 341 walks in 151 games. Bumgarner in the postseason: 5-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 59 1/3 innings. Kershaw in the postseason: 1-5 with a 5.12 ERA in 51 innings.