CHICAGO • His fingers didn’t linger on each button as he removed the gray road Cardinals jersey Friday. He shared a conversation, a hug, and so many smiles with catcher Yadier Molina as he walked in from warming up, but he didn’t pluck a leaf from the ivy or stop to breathe deep from Wrigley Field and inhale the moment, possibly his last pitching for the only big-league team he’s known.
Adam Wainwright would have, would have paused, would have marinated in all the innings he had here if not for one thing he felt as strong as his grip on a curveball.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s over yet,” he said, softly.
The five innings Wainwright gave the Cardinals against the Cubs on Friday to think about his future with the team were not enough to overcome the other four that dim their chances in the present. In the rainy muck of a sloppy field and sloppier play, the Cardinals committed three errors, failed to decipher Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, and lost, 8-4. The majors’ hottest team in August, the Cardinals have cooled like September and could be eliminated from the postseason race as early as Saturday.
At 87-73, the Cardinals need the Dodgers to be swept in San Francisco to overtake them for the second wild card. One Dodger win, and the Cardinals can, at best, try to force a tiebreaker Monday at Busch Stadium for the final playoff berth.
“Clearly, the back is completely against the wall,” manager Mike Shildt said. “So we’ve got to win the next two (games) and no guarantees with that. It’s been go time. It’s even more so now.”
Through his eight superb innings, Hendricks (14-11) kept the Cardinals uneasy and third baseman David Bote busy. The righthander with the yo-yo changeup and conductor’s ability to change tempos had the Cardinals pulling groundballs to the left side of the infield throughout the game. Molina grounded out three times to the left , twice to Bote; and Paul DeJong grounded out twice to Bote before threading a double down the third-base line with one out in the eighth inning. The Cardinals brought the tying run to the plate in that inning, and Hendricks got Molina to fly out to right field.
The Cardinals finished two-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and the game came unhinged when the Cubs scored three in the eighth to open up an 8-2 lead.
“We’ve been playing from behind too much,” Shildt said.
Once in control of a wild-card berth, the Cardinals have lost nine of their last 12 games against winning teams, including four consecutive against the two teams ahead of them in the division. In their 36 innings this week against Milwaukee and the Cubs, the Cardinals have ended one inning with a lead — and it was gone five batters later. They haven’t had a lead since Monday.
Shildt would not accept the team’s heavy reliance on young pitchers and rookies as a reason for the fade, but young arms like Jack Flaherty and John Gant have wheezed in recent weeks, and rookie Jordan Hicks hit a batter and walked two others in the Cubs’ three-run eighth Friday. Forget the postseason race, few of the contributors have run this deep into September.
“It’s a very young team, and, shoot, three-quarters of our team right now would have been done playing last year,” Wainwright said. “It seems like the first time all the way to the end can be a lot sometimes. When you’ve had an August like we had, after coming back from about a .500 record, and you battle like we did and get yourself in a good spot sometimes that takes a lot out of you. Sometimes in baseball you hit funks. Sometimes you get hot. And sometimes you just hit funks at the worst time you can ever hit them.
“That’s what we’re doing right now.”
That’s what he hoped to help avoid.
Sidelined most of the season by elbow soreness that contributed to a precipitous drop in velocity, Wainwright, 37, wondered as recently as two months ago if he would throw a pitch again for the Cardinals. A breakthrough followed, and he spent August mostly on a rehab assignment eyeing a return at a time when the Kid Cardinals could use reinforcements. He wanted to be a veteran booster shot — just in time.
In his four starts since returning from the DL he’s yet to pitch less than five innings, and in a crucial game against LA he spun curves through six shutout innings for a win. He arrived Friday at Wrigley for his 20th start at the Friendly Confines — outside of Busch, it’s the place he knows best and, at 11-2, where he has been his best. He said he and Molina spoke briefly before their 242nd start together, but it wasn’t about an end.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the last time,” Molina said. “I’m confident.”
“It may have been,” said Wainwright, a free agent in a few weeks. “It doesn’t feel like it is. For whatever reason. I haven’t had those emotions. The way I’m feeling now, if that is my last start here it would be kind of hard to walk away knowing the way I’m feeling right now. I’ve had better stuff these last four games than I had the last two years.”
It took surviving the first inning for Wainwright (2-4) to find that encouraging groove in the second. The Cubs’ first three batters reached base, and an error prodded the Cubs to a 2-0 lead five batters into the game.
Wainwright needed 32 pitches to get through the first inning.
“I came out a little sluggish, (and) I can’t explain that,” Wainwright said. “They needed more out of me in that first inning to set the tone.”
The veteran righted himself with a 10-pitch second inning, and then outside of a curveball Kris Bryant pulverized to center field for a home run Wainwright had the Cubs as wobbly as Hendricks had the Cardinals. Wainwright retired eight consecutive batters before Bryant’s homer, four of them by strikeout, three on curves. A sneaky good bunt single by Ben Zobrist put one last rally against Wainwright in play and led the Cubs’ fourth run and a 4-0 lead.
Wainwright then left Friday’s game as he first arrived — with a curveball.
He struck out Javier Baez and didn’t think to ask for the ball as the Wrigley speakers greeted his exit with the familiar chorus of “Respect.”
The rest of the game played out like the standings. The Cardinals teased rallies, brought the tying run to the plate three times, and fell shy. Friday may not feel like the end, but the Cardinals have their toes curled over its edge and all hands available.
Wainwright said he’ll grab a bat.
“I’m ready,” Wainwright said. “I’ll be available to pitch, pinch run, pinch (hit). Whatever. It’s that time of year.”