In September, five months into the long season, you don’t want to be asking questions. You want to know what you’ve got and what you’ll get from your players. But going into this weekend’s series against the Pirates, the Cardinals had a pretty big question mark to deal with as far as the recent struggles of staff ace Adam Wainwright. After Saturday night’s well-spun start to blow away the Bucs, that’s one question the Cardinals won’t have to entertain after all.
Wainwright spun a masterpiece to pitch his team past the Pirates in the NL Central for a night. Allowing just four Pirates on base in seven shutout innings with eight whiffs, Wainwright was back to dealing the way he’s expected to, a huge source of relief after he had taken back-to-back drubbings at the hands of the Reds. Overpowering the Pirates makes it look like the question over whether or not Wainwright had begun tipping his pitches has been fixed.
It might be easy to overstate these kinds of problems when everything involving these three teams running neck-and-neck in the NL Central is under the microscope. Fretting over Wainwright walking more men in half as many starts since the All-Star break as he did before reflects how incredible his season has been: Wainwright’s post-break 4-to-1 K:BB ratio in the second half is tremendous, but it’s less than half of the 9-to-1 ratio he put up before the break. But as good as he looked against the Pirates, it doesn’t look like he has a problem.
Of course, it’s always possible that the Reds may have picked up something more than tipping his pitches, setting up some potential for extra wild-card drama if the Reds and Redbirds have to face one another in the play-in game. Of course, the Cardinals would rather skip that exercise and just win the division outright, eliminating some questions as they answer others.
That’s because Wainwright isn’t the only Cardinal question mark this time of the year. David Freese going yard for the second time in three games was perhaps another proof of one of those kinks to the Cardinals’ master plan getting ironed out. Freese’s combined July and August performance was woeful: .649 OPS, plus a lone home run. Freese’s value is pretty much tied up in his bat, with his defense generally getting low marks; that’s reflected in evaluative defensive metrics like BIS’s Defensive Runs Saved, where Freese’s minus-13 is worse than everyone at third base not named Michael Young or Miguel Cabrera.
Hitting that badly in an organization as deep as the Cardinals’, Freese had endangered his claim to everyday play, creating an opening for second baseman Kolten Wong in the infield (with Matt Carpenter rotating over to the hot corner), allowing Mike Matheny to get another left-handed bat into his lineup. In the abstract, it’s a nice problem to have when you’re the Cardinals. Unfortunately, Wong hasn’t done anything at the plate since his call-up, leaving the Cardinals with another body but the same problem.
Again, these are the kinds of problems that crop up that provide a reminder that baseball is hard, hard even when you’re among the best players on the planet. Wainwright might be the pitcher you pick to start a must-win game, but his talent isn’t enough to armor him against opponents picking up the slightest bad habit. Like every other player in the game, one of its best is forced to continually adapt and adjust, to his opponents and to the changes in his game over time.
Freese may have been the terror of the Rangers for one magical week, but that doesn’t buy him job security less than two years later in the Show-Me State: He has to keep showing something. As Jimmy Dugan said in "A League of Their Own": “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
For the time being, this is the sort of happy in-season resolution that the Cardinals will take. It joins a lengthening list of things that are working out for them in-season, like how their bullpen has started to gel with Seth Maness and Randy Choate setting up Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica, or Joe Kelly’s pitching down the stretch. They’ll still need to see whether or not they get Allen Craig back in fully operating order in time for October, but it reflects the organization’s strength that even that question had an excellent fall-back answer in Matt Adams.
So now, with the three teams in the division fighting to earn that bye from the wild card and sudden death within two games of one another. Instead, for the next three weeks, we’ll be focused on the big question: “Who wins the NL Central?” That one’s going to be fun for you and me to kick around for the rest of the month, but for the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, it’s one all three teams would rather have answered already: “Us.”
We’ll see who pulls it off. We’re already getting a race to remember. But if Adam Wainwright has his ace’s wings back, the Birds could take flight and put the NL Central away the way people have expected them to for months. And if he’s getting extra run support because David Freese is back, so much the better for them.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.