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Adam Wainwright continues to adapt, and thrive

JUPITER, Fla. -- Pitchers who have long, productive careers inevitably are those who adapt best to the abuse their arms and bodies take.

Adam Wainwright has managed to stay a step ahead, which helps explain how he has finished in the top three in Cy Young balloting in four of his past six healthy seasons. Nearly a year removed from a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg, Wainwright is tinkering with his approach this spring, something manager Mike Matheny uses as an example for younger pitchers the team has asked to broaden their repertoires.

“All of a sudden, he’s learning how to work his sinker differently and he starts maximizing how he uses the plate with his cutter and he does that late in his career,” Matheny said.

Wainwright demonstrated the arc his career is taking in 2014, when he started the All-Star Game, won 20 games and had a 2.38 ERA. He did all that despite striking out 40 fewer batters than he had the season before. By incorporating different kinds of movement on his fastball, Wainwright became virtually impossible to get liftoff against. His 0.4 home runs allowed per nine innings led the majors.

Now 34, Wainwright has adapted to a declining fastball that averaged 89.6 mph last season, per FanGraphs. More than 30 percent of his pitches were cutters in 2015, a career high.

Wainwright worked into the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers in a 2-0 Cardinals loss Friday. He allowed six hits, but one of them was an infield hit, another a slicing fly ball that landed near the right-field line. He walked and struck out Miguel Cabrera, who also lined out to right. Wainwright said he enjoyed the challenge of facing the Tigers’ brawny lineup, which also featured Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos.

“I’m just glad they brought their big dogs, too. Those guys will tell you exactly where your stuff is,” Wainwright said.

Matheny has already said Wainwright will pitch Opening Day. He’ll be followed in the rotation by Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez, in that order.