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Struggling to score over their previous two games and missing two regulars in their lineup, the Nationals could have used a game against some run-of-the-mill, meatball tossing pitcher. Perhaps the last man they would have liked to face on Tuesday was Adam Wainwright.
Not only is Wainwright one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, he took to the mound a source of extra motivation. Knowing he had trouble with Washington hitters in particular last season, and knowing he wasn’t at his best the last time he pitched at Nationals Park in Game 5 of the NLDS, Wainwright had an axe to grind.
Unfortunately for the Nats, they had to be sacrificed.
“That start, even though we won the game, that served as motivation,” he said. “That game to me was a game that I live for and I was disappointed in the effort I put out there. It just gives you incentive to work harder in the offseason and come back stronger.”
The Nationals gave Wainwright trouble last year in both the regular season and the playoffs. In total he gave up 14 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings, including six in just 2 1/3 in Game 5.
“They’ve got some numbers off me in the past so I knew you could go two ways with it,” he said. “Either you remember those games, you give them too much credit and you go out there defeated already, or you say ‘no, I’m a good enough pitcher to get everyone out.’”
Wainwright had memories of last year fresh in his mind. He also had his backup catcher putting in extra time to help him game plan.
“When I got here Tony Cruz spent the morning here digging up stuff, tendencies they had against me,” Wainwright said.
“He brought that into our plan to add to what I had going. It was a good session early on and tonight I think the key was just executing what I was trying to do.”
Wainwright had a down season in 2012 as he was in the first year back from the Tommy John surgery he had in 2011. But otherwise he has been one of the game’s best pitchers since 2006, finishing in the top three of Cy Young voting in both 2009 and 2010. Now, however, he is not only stronger another year after the procedure, he has a new weapon.
Wainwright struck out Adam LaRoche four times on Tuesday, including once with the bases loaded in the sixth with a high four-seam fastball he is just starting to utilize. He said he is taking a note from Mariners ace Felix Hernandez in trying to mix in the high heat with his curveball.
“To be honest with you, I probably threw until last year about three or four four-seam fastballs my whole career,” he said. “It’s something I worked on this spring training and the games leading up to this point. It was a pitch that I wanted to add to my repertoire.”
LaRoche is one of Wainwright’s best friends and the pitcher said he’ll wait a few days to try and talk to him.
“I’m not going to text him tonight, but maybe a couple of days from now,” he said.
Wainwright was able to hit his spots up in the zone all night, grooving his fastball and hitting the edge of the plate with his swooping curve. It is a strategy manager Mike Matheny is okay with, but only if you can pull it off.
“I think there’s very few guys who should throw in the top of the zone, bad things happen,” Matheny said.
“We preach down in the zone, pitch to contact, that’s the philosophy of our organization. But there’s times for every adjustment.”
Wainwright finished with a near complete game shutout, he was pulled with one out in the ninth inning despite allowing just five hits and a walk. The lone walk, to Bryce Harper in the sixth inning, was the first he has allowed all year, coming 34 innings into his season.
Wainwright felt he could have tried to get Harper out, but said afterwards the walk was the right move given the situation.
“I was going to let the game dictate when that was okay to do and right there I felt like pitching him tough," he said. "Even though I’m loading the bases for a tough hitter in LaRoche, Bryce Harper can hurt you in a lot of different ways. Even though I knew I could make a pitch to get him out, I was smart about it. When you load the bases you got a lot of different ways to get an out.”
“I wasn’t going to go the whole season without walking someone."
Matheny called the walk one of his “favorite things” about Wainwright’s night.
“I knew he was going to pitch Bryce tough right there and do that. That’s what he did, he stuck with his gameplan. He didn’t let something like a walkless streak... you can get distracted by stuff like that. In a game that close, any missed opportunity, or a bad judgment, something that can distract you cost you a run, and not just that runner but the game.”
Wainwright fell two outs short of his second complete game of the season as Matheny replaced him with Edward Mujica after 113 pitches. He had sprinted to the mound ready for the opportunity, but fell just short of getting the final three outs.
“I was very disappointed. First, letting the leadoff guy on. You go out for the ninth inning with a borderline pitch count, you have to get the leadoff guy out,” he said.
“I was so mad when Bryce Harper got on base. He’s a great player, an amazing player, one of my tougher outs in the game. Just get him out and I probably finish that game. But he worked a tough at-bat on me, I threw some good pitches to him, and you tip your hat there.”
The Nats may have finally frustrated Wainwright in the ninth inning, but it was too little too late. They were shut out for the second time in the last three games and now have to try and avoid the sweep on Wednesday. Jaime Garcia will take the ball for St. Louis, perhaps increasing the odds just a little bit of the Nationals’ lineup getting things going.