A warning flag as related to the precious right arm of St. Louis Cardinals right-handed pitcher Adam Wainwright first flew late in the 2010 season. It hung question marks on the conclusion of the now-30-year-old’s best year ever.
The right-hander finished second in the National League in wins (20), ERA (2.42) and complete games (five) that summer. He tied for second in shutouts, was third in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts, while allowing the third-fewest walks per nine innings in the NL.
After Wainwright came close in 2009 with 19 victories, it became his first 20-win season. He was named a National League All-Star and improved from his 2009 third-place showing in the NL Cy Young Award voting to finish second.
Wainwright seemed to run out of gas late in the season, however. In six starts between August 18 and September 14, he went 1-5 with a 4.73 ERA, a stretch that may have cost him the Cy Young.
On September 27, it was disclosed that Wainwright had been dealing with right elbow stiffness in his prior two starts. Could it have been even longer? The next day, the problem was labeled as not being serious, and was attributed to Wainwright simply having slept awkwardly on his arm.
It did not end there, however. After an MRI and examination by team physician Dr. George Paletta, it was decided that Wainwright would skip his final start of the 2010 season due to what was then called a right forearm muscle strain. A slight tear remaining in the elbow ligament was also noted, a problem first identified in 2004. A rehab route was initially recommended and taken.
Though five months of off-season calendar time then elapsed, it was the briefest time possible on a baseball field. Not long after reporting to spring training camp, on February 21, Wainwright experienced elbow discomfort. One week later, he underwent season-ending Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, formally known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction.
In hindsight, having the procedure late in 2010 would have been the ideal route. However, at least the surgery was required early the following spring. That allowed the club – and Kyle McClellan specifically – to prepare for the season knowing Wainwright was out. In July, Edwin Jackson was acquired and essentially filled Wainwright’s rotation spot the rest of the season.
Though surely numerically fitting, the fact this story could rank only number 13 is a tribute to the resiliency demonstrated by the other players on the Cardinals 2011 roster. After all, they went ahead and achieved the ultimate, a World Championship, anyway. (Wainwright still had his place in the victory parade, as the above photo documents.)
The time that passes until Wainwright returns to peak efficiency could be one of the most important Cardinals questions of 2012.