Set for 5th OD start, Waino in rare company

Set for 5th OD start, Waino in rare company

JUPITER, Fla. -- Out of that same PNC Park bullpen door he jogged through last September to make an improbable return in relief, Adam Wainwright will emerge again on Sunday. This time, he'll be walking, longtime batterymate Yadier Molina alongside him, ready not to complete a comeback but to mark the start of a new chapter.

The Opening Day start -- at 12:05 p.m. CT vs. the Pirates -- will be the fifth of Wainwright's career, an assignment fitting for an ace and anchor of the organization. There was no easier decision for manager Mike Matheny to make this spring than choosing who would lead his club into the season.

"It is a tremendous honor," Wainwright said. "I think any time your manager looks you in the eyes and says, 'You're going to start us off because we want to build this thing around some of the things you do,' that helps. That's a confidence booster, and that's something that you never forget. You never forget starting one Opening Day game, but when you get multiple Opening Day starts, you realize how special it is."

Wainwright's count puts him in rare company, with only one pitcher in franchise history having made more. That was Bob Gibson, now a Hall of Famer, who made 10 Opening Day starts for the Cardinals, including nine straight from 1967-75. Dizzy Dean and Chris Carpenter also made five.

"He deserves that, he really does," manager Mike Matheny said of Wainwright throwing the team's first pitch for a fourth straight season. "That's his spot."

This start, though, wasn't a given just 11 months ago, when Wainwright received word that his Achilles injury would require a nine-to-12 month recovery. He blew that away, returning, instead, five months after hobbling off the field at Miller Park.

Though Wainwright did not have the crispest of springs, he typically finds another gear when the lights turn on. In his last two Opening Day starts, the right-hander has thrown a combined 13 scoreless innings, striking out 15 and scattering eight hits. He is 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in his previous four openers.

"My arm feels great, and that, I think, is the most important thing going forward and into the season," Wainwright said after a rain-shortened 3 2/3-inning start on Tuesday. "There are a couple of very minor things that make a big deal of difference that I'm going to do between now and the next start."

But for Wainwright, it's not just about returning as rotation ace on Sunday. He wants to assert himself as still among the best pitchers in the game. A four-time top-three finisher in the NL Cy Young Award vote and four-time 19-game winner, Wainwright seeks more.

His manager won't be among those betting against him.

"I think he could do whatever he wants," Matheny said. "I heard he wants to manage a Chick-fil-A. And I think he'd be good at that."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.