Wainwright shines in spring spotlight

Wainwright shines in spring spotlight

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- No Spring Training game will be confused with the playoffs, but once in a while you get a contest in Florida that feels more like the National League than the Grapefruit League. It can be a rivalry or a rematch, an intriguing pitching matchup or simply a mild, sunny day in front of a sold-out crowd.

And then there are the days when all of it comes together and you get a Spring Training event.

Adam Wainwright delighted in just such a game on Saturday afternoon at Tradition Field. Facing a team whose hearts he broke a year and a half ago, battling a lineup filled with regular-season stars and opposing the best pitcher on the planet, Wainwright turned in a superb outing in a 10-3 Cardinals win over the Mets.

Johan Santana is the big name, but Wainwright was the best pitcher in Saturday's game. He allowed two runs -- one earned -- on two hits over five innings, striking out three and walking one.

"I love that," Wainwright said. "I wish I could pitch against No. 1s every day. I feel like I'm going to beat 'em sometimes, and they're going to pitch great games sometimes. But I thrive on it. I love it. That's the ultimate competition, when you're going against the game's best, and [Santana] has proven he is."

Of course, any time Wainwright goes up against the Mets, there's a little extra juice to the matchup. His escape from a ninth-inning jam closed out the 2006 National League Championship Series and still stands as one of the iconic moments in franchise history.

So it all added up. Wainwright against the Mets, Wainwright against Santana, Wainwright against a lineup that featured Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado.

And the third-year Cardinal handled it all with aplomb.

"Adam did everything that he's supposed to do to be a good pitcher," said Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He got ahead in the count. He used all of his pitches. He threw strikes with everything. Threw a lot of curveballs for strikes. He pitched very good."

The Cardinals still refuse to confirm officially what has been obvious for weeks: Wainwright is their Opening Day starting pitcher. It's not even much of a contest. With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder on the mend, Wainwright is the undisputed No. 1 pitcher on the St. Louis staff.

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He's the guy the Cards want going against other teams' aces, and, fortunately, he wants it, too.

"The most fun you can have as a pitcher is having that No. 1 going against you and the best hitter in the game up at bat against you," he said. "They've got a couple guys on that team qualified for that at the plate."

Wainwright threw all of his pitches with movement and for strikes. He got ground-ball outs with his sinker, though he left a couple up and almost paid a price for them. His curveball was mostly excellent, with the exception of a solo homer by Mets catcher Raul Casanova. His slider was sharp, and his changeup was exceptional.

He made one hitter after another look bad with the changeup, which was moving down and away from left-handers, but still catching a piece of the strike zone.

"[The changeup] was good today," Wainwright said. "It's amazing what you do when you're able to throw it for strikes, make it look like it's going to be a strike. I just had command of it. I had a good feel for it today. You can do a lot of cool things if you have all your pitches in the zone working. Guys don't really know what in the world to look for."

Wainwright even got in on the hitting fun, stroking a base hit against Santana -- on a changeup, no less. The change-of-pace pitches were representative of the game as a whole. Santana's changeup is the best in baseball, but on Saturday, Wainwright's was better.

There are 16 days until Opening Day, so Wainwright has two more Grapefruit League starts before he faces the Rockies at Busch Stadium. Odds are, though, that neither of those upcoming spring affairs against the Orioles will quite resemble Saturday's game in Port St. Lucie.

So Wainwright will just keep working, keep trying to get sharper, and refine things so that he can be at his best when the games really count.

"I feel I'm getting close," Wainwright said. "I've definitely got to have a few more of those, a few more where I'm really feeling in control, and I'll be ready. I feel really comfortable on the mound right now. I feel like today was a really positive day for me as far as building on what I did last time. I was happy with it. I was excited."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.