ST. LOUIS -- For a guy who wasn't especially pleased with his performance the last time he punched the clock for work, St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright has spent lots of time looking at himself in the mirror the past five days.
Literally and figuratively.
When we last saw Wainwright in action, he was pitching a mediocre five innings in a World Series Game 1 loss to the Boston Red Sox, and then flogging himself in his postgame media session. Wainwright is an old-school type who believes a starter can elevate or deflate a team's spirits from the opening pitch, so when he failed to live up to his personal standards in the Series opener, he went hard on introspection and tinkering under the hood. If the slightest change in approach can make a difference the next time out, chances are he has considered it.
"It's a pretty clean slate," Wainwright said Sunday. "I honestly don't know why my mechanics were as bad as they were and my delivery was off as much as it was. But I feel like I've put in a lot of good reps in front of the mirror, watching film and feeling my delivery and learning the basics all over again."
All that remedial work has brought Wainwright to the intersection of square one and personal redemption, in what could prove to be the pivotal game of the 2013 Series.
Wainwright and Boston's No. 1 guy, Jon Lester, will meet in Game 5 on Monday night at Busch Stadium, and it's highly unlikely we'll see Ryan Dempster, Shelby Miller or any other emergency long-relief option warming up in the third inning. After two days of counting pitches, casting furtive glances toward the bullpen and nursing their starters through the early innings, Boston manager John Farrell and his St. Louis counterpart, Mike Matheny, have returned to the Big Boy portion of the rotation.
This is the big stage that Wainwright has craved since the Cardinals acquired him 10 years ago from Atlanta as part of the J.D. Drew trade -- before he wrapped up the 2006 World Series as St. Louis' closer and then graduated to the Chris Carpenter future-staff-ace apprenticeship program. The Cardinals committed to Wainwright as their lead dog when they signed him to a five-year, $97.5 million contract extension in March, but the sense of responsibility that drives Wainwright has nothing to do with his paycheck and everything to do with his commitment to his teammates and their shared objective to go the distance in 2013.
After the Red Sox beat the Cardinals 4-2 on Sunday night to tie the Series at two games each, third baseman David Freese was asked if Wainwright is a man on a mission following his so-so outing (five innings and three earned runs) in Game 1 in Boston.
"Adam is always on a mission, regardless," Freese said. "That's what makes him great."
Although Wainwright would never use wear-and-tear as a rationale for fading at this point in the season, he has logged an onerous workload in 2013. His 241 2/3 innings during the regular season were the 20th-highest total for a major league starter since 2000. Of the 19 bigger workloads, a combined 11 were logged by Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, Curt Schilling and Livan Hernandez.
Wainwright has since tacked on 28 postseason innings -- swelling his overall total to a hair less than 270. Keep in mind this is a guy who missed the entire 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
If opponents want to get to Wainwright, it's a good idea to do it early. Wainwright posted a 6.09 ERA in the first inning this season, making it easily his least effective portion of the game. According to Baseball Reference, Wainwright logged a 3.92 ERA in the first three innings, a 2.49 ERA in the middle three innings, and a 1.67 mark in innings seven through nine.
It's not simply a matter of conditioning or physically wearing down opponents. St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina is a master of probing opposing hitters' weakness, and he and Wainwright are adept at filing away physical cues and swing paths for future reference, and using early encounters to set up hitters later in the game.
"I think Adam knows how to approach hitters with the best of them," Freese said. "He knows how to adjust to them throughout the game, and the bottom line is, he hits his spots. Obviously he doesn't throw as hard as some other guys, but he can just flat-out pitch."
Wainwright will face a formidable opponent in Lester, who dominated the Cardinals by an 8-1 score in the Series opener only to wake up the next morning to a short-lived controversy over a mysterious green blob in his glove. Farrell subsequently revealed that Lester "sweats like a pig" and needs lots of rosin to get a proper grip on the ball.
"I've gotten a lot of crap from my friends and my wife on that one," Lester revealed Sunday.
Monday's rematch will provide the umpteenth take on a perpetual question: Do starting pitchers or hitters gain the advantage when they face each other twice in a five-day span in the same postseason series?
"It just depends on how the pitcher comes at you and the approach we have as team," Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran said. "If Lester comes out not throwing strikes or falls behind hitters, I think we're gonna take advantage. If he pounds the corners and throws strikes and keeps us off balance, I bet he'll find a way to pitch a good game. The same for Wainwright.
"As a hitter, you want to put yourself in position to get a good pitch to hit. At the same time, you have to understand that pitchers like that don't make too many mistakes. So when they make them, you have to be ready to take advantage."
All sorts of underlying mini-dramas and twists and turns are playing out each day in this Series. St. Louis' young relievers, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, got a welcome night off Sunday, although Martinez did warm up in the bullpen. Conversely, Boston lefty Craig Breslow, who has been so reliable this season, is going through a funk at the worst possible time. Meanwhile, both teams are having a heck of a challenge mounting an offense. The Cardinals are hitting .235 with one home run in 136 World Series at-bats, but they still have a higher team slugging percentage (.309) than the Red Sox (.307).
A day ago, Cardinals fans looked forward to the possibility of Wainwright trying to wrap things up in St. Louis. Now he needs to beat Lester or the Cardinals face the unenviable task of trailing 3-2 going back to Fenway Park, where Boston posted a 53-28 record during the regular season.
"Obviously we wanted to win tonight," Freese said. "But it's all right. This is a great series and I'm happy to be a part of it. Plus, I like Boston. I have a chance to get a little Tasty Burger in me again."
All that red meat will be a little easier for Freese to digest if the Cardinals have to win only one game rather than two at Fenway. The return of the real Adam Wainwright will go a long way toward making that scenario a reality.