Septembers in St. Louis are supposed to be exciting.
This city didn’t earn it’s moniker as a baseball town for nothing. Fall in St. Louis means much more than leaves changing colors and pumpkin coffee orders in bulk. When the autumn air turns cool and crisp, it also brings the chilling anticipation of another pennant race. The ballpark — nestled in the heart of downtown — also becomes the pulse of the city. The Cardinals — St. Louis’ pride and joy — become the talk of the town, even more so than usual.
September means the start of fall and the start of fall means the start of postseason baseball. This is a rite of passage as a Cardinals fan. St. Louis has grown accustomed to magic numbers and clinching countdowns and champagne celebrations, year after year after year.
Except this year. This has been an abomination of a season. One year after clinching their fourth-straight playoff berth, the reigning National League Central champions were the first team eliminated from their division. The Cardinals will record a losing season for the first time in 15 years. Their ballpark will sit vacant during the postseason. Their fate has been apparent for months, and their fans have responded accordingly.
Half-hearted crowds have trickled into the concourses of Busch Stadium. On a good night, the stadium will show half-full. On a bad night, the number of empty sections is staggering. Many concession stands are closed. The fans are attentive but not lively. A sense of apathy seems to permeate the grandstands. Frustration and anger over this disappointing season subsided long ago. There was nothing left for the fan base to do but accept reality.
But over the past few weeks, both the Cardinals and their fans found a cause to rally around. Adam Wainwright’s chase for 200 career wins became the organization’s World Series. And after months of anguish, they finally had a reason to celebrate.
On Monday night, Wainwright became the 96th player in Major League Baseball history to record 200 wins. It did not come easy. Nothing has this season. But in a way, Wainwright’s season-long struggles and the effort from his teammates, coaches and training staff to keep pushing him forward, made the night all the more worthwhile.
“Having to work as hard as I had to work for it made me savor it that much more,” Wainwright said after the game. “There was a time where I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to keep going, or if they were going to let me keep going. … That’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever pitched in my whole life.”
Though his final season strayed off course, reaching the 200-win milestone allowed Adam Wainwright to truly appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment.
“Having to work as hard as I had to work for it made me savor it that much more.”
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 19, 2023
In a performance symbolic of his career, Wainwright spun seven scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, propelling the Cardinals to a 1-0 victory. He limited Milwaukee to four hits and two walks with three strikeouts on 93 pitches. Not one pitch registered a radar reading higher than 88 mph. The modern game prioritizes velocity and strikeouts, but Wainwright crafted a career on much of the opposite. He carved up the Brewers lineup just like how he dominated opposing hitters for most of his career, varying location, speed, arm slot and pitch selection to the point where velocity was hardly necessary.
It was a gutty and grinding outing, one in which manager Oli Marmol described the 42-year-old Wainwright as being held up by duct tape. It was an outing that left Wainwright in tears. Above all, it was an outing that sparked a reaction that had seemed somewhat impossible this September.
It captivated the fan base.
Before the game, stadium employees, team personnel and fans alike spoke with cautious optimism that Wainwright would notch No. 200, many crossing their fingers while doing so. When public-address announcer John Ulett announced the starting lineup, the cheers from the crowd crescendoed as the scoreboard flashed to Wainwright warming up in the bullpen. This was not your usual lackluster September baseball game for a team well out of contention. This game meant just as much to the city as it did to the starting pitcher.
From the first pitch — a four-seam fastball ruled outside — the 33,176 in attendance were glued to the action. They roared with each strikeout and each double play turned and only grew louder with each zero tacked up on the scoreboard. They knew when Willson Contreras hammered a line drive over the left-field fence (which would serve as the game’s lone run) that something special was taking place. They stirred even more each time Masyn Winn darted around the diamond, securing another ground-ball out. They charged up Ryan Helsley when the closer’s entrance played in the eighth inning instead of the ninth, meaning he would need to record a multi-inning save. And when Tommy Edman secured a popout by Willy Adames for the final out, the place erupted.
This is how September baseball is supposed to be played in St. Louis.
“It just felt like the baseball we’re used to seeing here,” Marmol said. “It was a heck of a lot of fun.”
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) September 19, 2023
It’s been hard to watch the Cardinals this season. At times, it’s been hard to watch Wainwright too. After a drubbing against the Astros in June, he pleaded with Marmol, asking his manager “not to give up” on him. Wainwright landed on the injured list a couple of weeks later. In August, Wainwright’s status in the rotation again came into question after he was battered by the Royals. His ERA ballooned to well over 8.00, the highest among MLB starters. Still, Marmol kept his faith. Soon after, Wainwright began to catch some momentum.
Pitcher wins may not carry the same weight as they did in prior generations, which in a way, made this journey more special. Wainwright is now one of five active pitchers to have recorded the milestone, joining Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. He might be the last pitcher to do so for quite a while. Among MLB’s active pitcher win list, the next closest pitcher to 200 wins is 37-year-old Johnny Cueto at 144. The next pitcher to have a realistic shot at 200 wins is Gerrit Cole, who has 143.
Wainwright’s resilient quest for 200 wins provided Cardinals fans with a rooting interest. After he recorded win No. 199 against the Orioles, his first win in his last 11 starts, it became clear what would happen next. Wainwright’s 200th win couldn’t be scripted, but if it was going to happen, it was going to happen at home, in St. Louis, in front of the fans he had endeared himself to over the better part of the last two decades.
“I had an idea coming to the park today that I was going to let everything I had, I was going to lay it all out here, because I really wanted it to happen here,” Wainwright said. “The crowd was unbelievable tonight. I felt them cheering on every pitch I made, every big strikeout, we had a couple of double plays and the crowd was just going crazy. They were on their feet all night and I felt that.”
The love between Adam Wainwright and St. Louis ❤️
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) September 19, 2023
No. 200 may have served as Wainwright’s final start. He will skip his next scheduled start in San Diego, and he and the Cardinals are mulling whether or not he’ll pitch during the team’s final three-game series of the season at Busch Stadium.
If he never throws another pitch for St. Louis, that’s OK. Wainwright’s impending retirement brings with it the end of a generation. He is the last household name of the mid-200os era, which introduced franchise staples like Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter. He is a fan favorite, and his career will undoubtedly end with a red jacket, enshrined in the organization’s hall of fame. He pitched most of the season hurt, wear and tear chipping away at his ability. But he never quit until he delivered for himself and for the city, one more time.
So it was very fitting that in perhaps the final pitching performance of his 18-year career, he twirled a standard Wainwright gem.
“For at least a night, I was a real pitcher out there,” Wainwright said. “The guy I want to be. Seven innings, shutout, a couple of hits. Got through a couple of tough at-bats out there and made adjustments, worked in and out, up and down.
“For tonight, I was me.”
In an otherwise lost season, that’s all this baseball town could’ve asked for.
(Photo of Adam Wainwright: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)