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Chasing A Round Number In A Zero-Sum Season

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright throws what looks like a circle-change against the Kansas City Royals
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals long ago realized that 2023 would happen without them, but they haven't turned over the last quarter of their season to the usual gaggle of prospects/suspects. They held onto their veteran base while sprinkling in the odd young'un, and they kept megaveteran starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, more than anything else to allow him to win his 200th career game, all of them for St. Louis. It is an act of wanton sentimentality for someone who has served his club well and been properly compensated for same, and it's the sort of thing that plays especially well in a ball town like St. Louis.

Only he's been stuck at 198 wins for the past two months, and not just stuck but struck. He's profoundly lost eight of his last nine starts and got no-decisioned in the other, a 10-6 win over Arizona in which he lasted only four innings. He has the worst ERA of any starter in baseball in those starts (12.56) and is averaging barely a strikeout per turn through the order. In fact, Tuesday night he induced his first swing and miss (by Pittsburgh's Vinny Capra) since Aug. 4, 60 hitters and 156 pitches before. Given his age (41) and contract ($17.5 million, of which $14 million or so has already been paid), he would almost surely have been released by now, if not for the romantic debt the Cardinals feel to him and his quest for the round number he so desires in what figure to be his final seven starts.

And in what is shaping up as the Cardinals' worst season in 33 years, Wainwright's worst season ever is particularly metaphorical. If he hadn't earned the right to leave this way, he'd have already left, and not of his choice. And if the Cardinals hadn't benefited from his history for nearly two decades, they wouldn't have let him stay. Baseball math is a cruel bastard that way.

“It’s proving to be very difficult,” he was quoted as saying Tuesday night. “I thought today was going to be the day, for sure. Especially after the way I started, I really felt confident that we were going to win that game. We just didn’t do it. I can’t win 200 before I win 199, and I’ve got to win that one first. And that starts with my next start. I’ve got to be focused on winning that game.”

This isn't about focus, though. It's about Wainwright's will trying to lie to his body, and the Cardinals letting him try. What else, after all, do they have to aim for? In a city as tied to its baseball history as any in any sport, the grief the team would take for denying him his best chance at the milestone he craves would dwarf the grief they are getting now for sucking so comprehensively.

“It’s been a weird year, a funky year, and we haven’t had a year like this since I’ve been here,” Wainwright said. “So, if you have one of these every 18 years, that’s not a terrible ratio. I know with everyone it’s driving them crazy, and it’s driving me crazy. It’s not how I wanted to go out.”

Is it gratuitous to drop a "duh" here? Yes, it is. But just getting the chance to go out that way is in its own twisted way a credit to Cardinals management, which has failed spectacularly in many other ways but does know how to pay its feel-good debts. We would never go so far as to say you should root for Adam Wainwright; that is a personal choice between you and your analytics department. But if you need a happy ending, he is on schedule to start the last game of the season at home against Cincinnati. If he's hanging at 199 on that day, it will mean his year didn't get any better but his career might end the way he dreamed. He'll take the tradeoff without a single regret. Well, if he ends up 5-14, maybe a few.

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