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Cardinals' Adam Wainwright still has his edge

JUPITER, Fla. -- "Hi, this is Adam from Georgia. First-time caller."

"Hi, Adam. Go ahead."

Those may not have been the exact words that launched it, but Adam Wainwright called in to a Sirius XM radio show last month to voice his displeasure over being the 22nd pitcher selected in the show's fantasy draft. The hosts quickly got wind that it was Wainwright on the phone and diffused the tension a bit by playing a clip of him striking out Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

But Wainwright wasn't entirely assuaged, especially when one of the hosts suggested he was no longer one of the game's elite starters, but instead an aging pitcher with a future pitching in relief.

"That's laughable," Wainwright said. "That's the first I've heard now that I'm a reliever. Goodness, I came back after Achilles surgery in five months. Show me an old guy that's able to do that. I'm still young and still feeling good and all you guys who passed on me, I'm going to make you regret that decision."

The St. Louis Cardinals welcome every bit of motivation that comes Wainwright's way these days. They're hoping to replicate historically good pitching from last season even after losing their best starter from a year ago, John Lackey, to the rival Cubs. Wainwright is at the center of that plan, the veteran No. 1 starter being counted on as the lead dog in a young, talented group of starters. Already, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has said Wainwright will start Opening Day, barring an injury, which surprised exactly no one at Roger Dean Stadium.

If Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak were to engage in a fantasy draft, it's fair to say he wouldn't let 21 pitchers get picked before he took Wainwright.

"He's one of the best pitchers in the game," Mozeliak said. "People don't see the 96 [mph] or 97 any more, but he's aged almost like a fine wine. He gets better, because he learns more. He's studied the game and he's very strategic in how he gets hitters out. He'll take advantage of any opportunity he can."

How quickly people forget. Wainwright went 39-18 with a 2.67 ERA in 2013 and 2014. He started an All-Star Game, Derek Jeter's last. But on April 25 in Milwaukee, Wainwright swung at a pitch, hit a popup and immediately hobbled toward first base. The diagnosis that came two days later, a torn left Achilles tendon, was supposed to be season-ending. Wainwright returned in late September and pitched a bit in relief.

That he has meanwhile been largely forgotten by a fickle national baseball audience isn't entirely surprising. Wainwright, 34, is at an age when some pitchers begin to decline precipitously, particularly in an era with fewer performance-enhancing drugs. Josh Beckett and Dan Haren both retired at his age. CC Sabathia was two years younger when his effectiveness fell off a cliff.

The Cardinals think Wainwright will age better than many pitchers, and they have numbers on their side. He has missed two of the past five seasons and his arm has probably benefitted from the rest. He had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2011. He also was a reliever his first two seasons in the major leagues. Wainwright's career innings (1,569⅔) are nearly half that of Sabathia (2,988⅔).

Wainwright said his arm feels "amazing," comparing it to the spring of 2013. He said he has gotten more natural sink and cut now that he is five years removed from arm surgery, and said he benefitted from last year's respite.

"It did me some good. I was able to save a lot of bullets," Wainwright said.

The Cardinals have a deep rotation. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have the natural ability to be No. 1 starters, but they're counting on Wainwright's leadership of a staff that otherwise is composed of 20-somethings. His easygoing, gentlemanly demeanor has made him an approachable veteran for younger players. He said he crafted his leadership style in contrast to that of the team's ace, Chris Carpenter, when he was an up-and-comer.

"He was that stoic, all-business kind of guy, and we needed that light in the clubhouse," Wainwright said.

It doesn't hurt that he still has one of the game's best curveballs. Some veteran hitting coaches have lamented the inability of today's hitters to hit curveballs in the era of the cutter and sinker. New Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena caught a slow one from Wainwright his first time catching him and yelled back to the mound, "Don't abuse me on the first day!"

Later, Pena said he would rather catch it than try to hit it.

"When you face a guy like him, you always have in the back of your mind about that 12-to-6 curveball," Pena said. "Then he feeds from there. That cutter looks better. Then, that changeup's even nastier."