Adam Wainwright didn’t think he was having his Billy Chapel moment as he attempted to record the last out of the seventh inning on Sept. 18.
As it turns out, Wainwright was begging his body to help him write a Hollywood ending.
Wainwright said Tuesday he would not pitch again for the St. Louis Cardinals, which ensured — as much as Wainwright initially preferred otherwise — that authoring his 200th win in the Cardinals’ 1-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers 10 days ago would serve as the final act of his career.
Wainwright, who is retiring at the end of the season, said he wanted to pitch at least one more time for the Cardinals but realized that wouldn’t be possible after a painful game of catch in San Diego over the weekend. In addition to a chronically sore shoulder, Wainwright is dealing with herniated discs in his back and a rib injury.
“I literally left everything I had out there — like, for real,” Wainwright told reporters in Milwaukee, where the Cardinals were playing the Brewers.
Wainwright’s final pitch was one of his trademark over-the-top curveballs. With his 42-year-old shoulder barking and feeling the effects of nearly 3,500 professional innings, the curveball didn’t have the classic break of his trademark pitch. But it was effective enough to coax Josh Donaldson into flying out to center field, stranding runners at the corners.
“It felt kind of like Kevin Costner in that movie, you know?” Wainwright said Tuesday. “Where I’m thinking, all right, I can do this one more time. I can do this one more time.”
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Wainwright closing out his career with his 200th win magnified the exhausting path to the milestone while underlining the impressiveness of the accomplishment.
Wainwright won his final two big league starts after enduring an 11-start stretch in which he went 0-10 with a 10.72 ERA while missing three weeks with a sore shoulder.
That arduous path might have been on his mind after he earned career win no. 198 on June 17, when Wainwright limited the New York Mets to three runs over 6 1/3 innings in the Cardinals’ 5-3 victory.
Asked afterward if he had time to talk about the 200-win club the next day, Wainwright grinned and agreed — with one notable stipulation.
“I’ll talk about 198 wins,” Wainwright told The Game Day Baseball. “Not 200.”
There’s a real possibility Wainwright will be the last pitcher ever to talk about 198, 199, or 200 wins. He’s the 122nd pitcher to reach the milestone but one of only five active pitchers to do so, along with Justin Verlander (256), Zack Greinke (224), Max Scherzer (214), and Clayton Kershaw (210).
The average age of the active (for now) 200-game winner is 39.
“Been fortunate enough to play with a few of those guys and know some of them pretty well,” Kershaw said July 16, when the Mets hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I just think it’s pretty amazing what everybody’s accomplished. And I want to watch anytime you see their name (and) they’re about to pitch. I think that the greatest compliment you can give is you like watching what they do because they’re good at it and compete well.
“Hopefully, a few of us can keep going here for a little while.”
There may only be one pitcher to whom Kershaw and his peers can pass the baton. Four active pitchers are within 20 victories of joining the 150-win club, but just Gerrit Cole — who is 33 and has 145 wins — has a realistic chance at surging past 150 and making a run at 200 victories. Johnny Cueto has 144 wins at age 37, Lance Lynn has 135 victories at age 36, and Charlie Morton has 130 wins at age 39.
Only three pitchers aged 30 or younger even have 80 wins. The Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola, who turned 30 in June, has 90 wins, while 29-year-old Jose Berrios has 83 wins and 30-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez has 81 wins.
“I am absolutely a dinosaur now,” Wainwright said on June 18. “Forty-one, about to turn 42, and people think I am like Methuselah. With the way money is in the game, if you play until your upper 30s, you’ve probably done really well. Your body probably hurts a lot — I know what that feels like, but it definitely does hurt a lot. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to have a lot of fortune, as far as good luck. It’s just got to be a perfect situation. It’s just not that easy anymore.”
The inherent dangers of pitching complicate the task of earning the win — 13 of the 18 active pitchers with 100 wins have endured a stint on the injured list this season — and the increasing reliance on hard-throwing relievers.
Starters are averaging 5.16 innings per appearance this season, down from 5.9 innings per appearance in 2013 and 2003. And that was down from the 6.1 innings per appearance averaged by starters in 1993 and 6.3 innings per appearance in 1983.
“I think we’re always trying to create the best baseball — like, the hardest, toughest league,” Cole said at Yankee Stadium on July 6 before chuckling. “It seems to be getting harder every year, so it seems like we’re succeeding.
“Growing up, watching starters, I liked watching guys work deep into the game. Thought that was always fun to see.”
Four of the five lowest full-season winning percentages by starters have occurred over the last four full seasons — including this season when starters are 1358-1497 (.477). Seven pitchers have at least 15 wins, likely the second-smallest full-season total ahead of only 2021 when five pitchers — including Wainwright, Cole, and Scherzer — earned 15 or more wins.
“I kind of came up in an era still where guys were pitching more and more innings — 200-inning guys was kind of the norm,” said Kershaw, who debuted in 2008 when 300-game winners Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson were still pitching. “Obviously, that’s all changing. There are so many (reasons) why that is, but ultimately, yeah, I don’t think guys are going to win as many games.
“It’s a little bit sad for the game. I think people want to see their starters be in the game for as long as possible. It’s kind of like they’re invested with a starter.”
Wainwright said he thinks the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. Scherzer does, too, and he’s got some ideas on how to make the win a thing again.
“I call it the ‘qualified start,’” Scherzer said at Citi Field on July 2, a little more than four weeks before he was dealt to the Texas Rangers as part of the Mets’ selloff at the MLB trade deadline. “If a pitcher pitches six innings, throws 95 pitches, or gives up four runs — any one of those three things happens, you get the DH for the full game. If you don’t have a qualified start, you lose a DH.
“Let’s even sweeten the pot. Let’s make it even more. If you get a qualified start, you can get a free substitution — an extra pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. Just continue to make the value of starters making their starts and making full starts an integral part of the game.”
Without rule changes or another dramatic shift in the emphasis on starters, there may not be, after Cole, another pitcher who approaches 200 wins.
The enormity of the milestone has grown during a century in which as many pitchers have reached 300 wins — Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, and Roger Clemens — as have retired with exactly 200 wins. Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester each made two more appearances after earning their 200th win, while Chuck Finley recorded his 200th victory in his final start in 2002.
Wainwright’s teary-eyed response after his 200th win and the crowd’s reaction at Busch Stadium each lent a historic air to the achievement. On Tuesday, Wainwright said it’s much cooler to sign items with the number “200” than it is to sign them with “199.”
“If you’re coming out of a game having gone five innings and you’re tied 1-1 because you just gave up a run in the fifth inning, you walk away going ‘God! So close to getting the win!’” Wainwright said on June 18. “That’s what you want. At the end of the day, more than anything else, this game’s about wins and losses. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have wins and losses decide who wins the championship, you know what I mean?
“So that’s the most important thing. And if a pitcher can get that ‘W’ besides a name, it means something.”