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Friday, February 23, 2007
Wainwright eyeing 'smooth' transition to rotation

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

JUPITER, Fla. -- Adam Wainwright lives in a small town called St. Simons Island, Ga. Everyone knows him there.

"All winter,'' he said, "people would come up to me and not just tell me that they saw me get the final out of the World Series, they would tell me where they were and what they were doing when I got the final out. They were all so proud and so excited.''

Wainwright smiled like a champion. "There's nothing like getting those last three outs," he said.

Adam Wainwright
Adam Wainwright didn't allow a single run to score off him in 9 2/3 innings of relief during last year's postseason.
Those days appear to be over for Wainwright unless, of course, he throws a bunch of complete games. Less than a year after becoming the fifth rookie ever (and second since 1969) to get the last out of the clinching game of the World Series, Wainwright has been moved back to the rotation by the Cardinals. Jason Isringhausen, the St. Louis closer before Wainwright, appears healthy after missing the stretch run and the postseason in 2006. He has thrown off a pitching mound seven or eight times, and is due to pitch in a game March 15.

"They keep putting me back together,'' Isringhausen said.

Now the Cardinals are trying to put together their rotation after the loss of Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis to free agency in the offseason. Kip Wells was signed as a free agent and Mark Mulder was re-signed, but he likely won't throw off a mound until April, and likely won't pitch in a game for the Cardinals until perhaps July. Anthony Reyes, 25, is expected to get a regular turn in the rotation for the first time. Braden Looper, who hasn't started a game on any level in 10 years, will also get a long look this spring for the rotation. The projected five starters won 22 games last year as starters, which makes Wainwright's move to the rotation very important.

"[Starting] is what Adam wants to do,'' Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said.

Added manager Tony La Russa: "We need Adam [in the rotation]."

There's no reason to think Wainwright, 25, won't be a quality starter.

"We think he has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation guy,'' Jocketty says.

Wainwright is smart, he is a great worker and he has great stuff: a fastball in the mid 90s, a knee-rattling curveball and a changeup. Plus, he had been a starter his entire professional career until he was needed in relief last year.

"The transition should be smooth,'' Wainwright said. "I'm looking forward to it. I've been a starter for 5½ years, granted not in the big leagues. But I've always come to spring training as a starter. The preparation will be the same.''

Wainwright says he loved the feeling of coming to the ballpark every day with a chance to get in a game.

"But I also like to play golf,'' Wainwright said with a smile. "I also like to relax, not like there will be much time to relax. But, they say that the life of a starting pitcher is the life. We'll see.''

If a closer has a bad night, he gets a chance to make up for it the next night.

"That's why, as a starter, you have to keep the bad ones to a minimum,'' Wainwright said. "Those four days in between starts can be agonizing. You can't wait to get back out there.''

The bad ones should be infrequent given his repertoire of pitches.

"I used all my pitches last year [as a reliever],'' he said "I'm going to have to use my fastball more. And my changeup.''

And he will always have that curveball. It is the pitch -- the one with the vicious 12-to-6 break -- that helped make his rookie season so impressive: 75 innings pitched, 64 hits, 72 strikeouts, 3.12 ERA and three saves. It is the pitch that helped make Wainwright so dominant in the postseason (9 2/3 innings pitched, seven hits, 15 strikeouts, 0.00 ERA and four saves). It is the pitch that struck out the Mets' Carlos Beltran looking with the bases loaded and the winning run on first to end Game 7 of last season's National League Championship Series.

In Beltran's first day of spring training this year, the first question he got from the New York media was that called third strike. When later told of that first question, Mets third baseman David Wright defended his teammate.

"You mean the pitch that dropped from here to about here?" Wright asked, pointing from his chin to his knees. "That was really nasty.''

NL hitters beware: there will be many more of those this year from Wainwright, the starter.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.