MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Wainwright hits bump in road back from surgery

Castrovince: Wainwright traveling rocky road back

Wainwright hits bump in road back from surgery
ST. LOUIS -- We want this stuff to be seamless. We want the stars to seize their old status, even with the stitches still fresh.

Fact is, it doesn't always work that way. And Adam Wainwright's brutal second start to this 2012 season -- a start made amid all the history heralded and the championship commemorated before the St. Louis Cardinals' home opener at Busch Stadium on Friday -- was proof positive.

Wainwright was abused by a lackluster Cubs lineup, to the tune of eight runs on seven hits with two walks and three strikeouts over three innings. Bryan LaHair's third-inning grand slam on a 91-mph sinker that stayed flat epitomized an outing in which Waino was woeful.

"This was the worst game of my career," Wainwright said. "No doubt."

And nobody is expecting this to be Wainwright's new norm. He's far too talented for that.

But there does need to be an understanding that just because Adam Wainwright is back on the mound after a year away doesn't mean he's automatically the guy we last saw in 2010. It will be a process -- an evolution of mind, of body, of routine -- to get Wainwright back to that point.

Perhaps it will come quickly, for Wainwright was sharp for much of the spring.

But it clearly wasn't a process that looked complete Friday.

"We all set the bar so high the way he went through Spring Training, making the pitches he made," manager Mike Matheny said. "The offspeed stuff and the velocity were all right there from the beginning, which we didn't expect to see."

So the Cards didn't expect to see this, either. But Wainwright's velocity waned slightly as camp progressed, and it has remained in the 89-90-mph range in his first two starts in the regular season. And the velocity wouldn't be an issue if the pitches themselves had late life in and around the zone.

These didn't.

The Cubs jumped on Wainwright immediate with a four-run first. A David DeJesus leadoff double, a Darwin Barney single, a Starlin Castro run-scoring hit. Bang, bang, bang, and it was 1-0 with no one out. Alfonso Soriano provided the first out on a deep fly to right, but Ian Stewart's homer cleared the wall and the bases. It was 4-0.

That pitch to Stewart, Wainwright would point out, was just off the plate inside. Had it any action at the tail end, it might have tangled Stewart up. But it just sat there.

"I've thrown the ball 87 [mph] with a lot more life than I had today," Wainwright said.

And so this outing didn't live long. Wainwright was out after three and left to spend the rest of his afternoon analyzing video of himself from better days. He came to the conclusion that he wasn't tipping his pitches or offline in his mechanics. He simply didn't have it.

"The last game in 2010 [against the Cubs], when I had a little elbow thing going on, I pitched 87, 88 the whole game and carved people up," he said. "The same team. I've pitched long stretches where you go weeks at a time with a dead arm and all kinds of crazy stuff and you figure out ways to get outs. I don't look at this like that."

Wainwright was careful to try to quell concerns about his velocity. His arm, he insists, is perfectly healthy.

But just because his elbow is intact doesn't mean past glories jump back to the forefront. Since 2007, only six pitchers have compiled at least 500 innings and posted an ERA less than 3.00. As one of those six guys, Wainwright seems to take on savior status to a Cardinals team that is without co-ace Chris Carpenter for quite a while. His status is best illustrated in what Lance Berkman told reporters after Wainwright's first 2012 outing against the Cubs.

"If he pitches like that," Berkman said, "he's going to win 20 games."

This, however, could very well be an unrealistic expectation, given that Wainwright's innings will likely be limited and he's already in the hole, 0-2.

Yes, Carpenter came back from Tommy John in 2009 and was a Cy Young runner-up. Jaime Garcia came back in 2010 and posted a 2.70 ERA. But for each of those immediate success stories, there is at least one Edinson Volquez or Francisco Liriano -- guys who had trouble recapturing the stuff that made them shine before their elbow ligament snapped.

This is not meant to jump to any negative conclusions off one miserable start. It's just meant to point out the obvious: Expectations for Wainwright must be measured and tempered until he settles into a real routine.

On this particular day, in front of a particularly expectant crowd, Wainwright wasn't his old self, or anything close to it.

"My first two or three starts of Spring Training, I was throwing easy fastballs, 92-93," he said. "Easy sink, curving it. That tells me I'll get it back. I'm not worried about my arm in any capacity. This was just a horrible day."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.