Wainwright thriving as Cards' closer

Wainwright thriving as Cards' closer

DETROIT -- Baylie Grace Wainwright was born Sept. 10, and already her toy chest is cooler than just about any other child's.

The Cardinals hope her dad, rookie closer Adam Wainwright, continues to shower his daughter with the gifts.

Wainwright eased into the closer's role in September, a couple of weeks after he left the team to be with his wife, Jenny, for his daughter's birth. Heading into Saturday night's opener of the 2006 World Series against the Tigers at Comerica Park, Wainwright has three postseason saves, equaling his regular-season total.

Someday, the little girl will be old enough to absorb the DVD and understand how hard her dad had to work for the toy he collected Thursday night. Wainwright escaped a pair of jams -- two on and no outs, and bases-loaded and one out -- for the save in the Cards' 3-1 victory over the Mets in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series.

"I am saving the balls, for sure," said Wainwright, who will give the ball to Cards trainer/calligraphy expert Barry Weinberg for decoration before taking it home. "That's the first thing that I said before I walked to the mound, 'I'm going to do this for Baylie Grace.' At the same time, I knew I couldn't let the team down. They fought so hard to get in that situation."

Wainwright, 25, is one reason the Cards have a chance to live their childhood dreams.

"I don't know if this is the year for young guys, but it sure seems like it," Wainwright said. "If it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else down there."

The key acquisition from the Braves in the J.D. Drew trade on Dec. 13, 2003, Wainwright started all but two of his 137 Minor League appearances, but the Cards didn't have a rotation spot for him this year.

Still, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound string bean of a right-hander displayed four pitches, two of them devastating -- a four-seam fastball with late movement and a top-to-bottom curve he could command in and out of the strike zone -- as well as a changeup and a slider. He was in line for something special.

Veteran closer Jason Isringhausen was shelved for the season in September because of a hip injury. Manager Tony La Russa could have gone with his most experienced remaining reliever, Braden Looper, who has 103 career saves. But the ninth inning turned out to be the best place for Wainwright's talents.

Often a closer is told to eliminate his lesser pitches. Wainwright has not received that advice, mainly because he has a strong enough feel for when to use them and when to go with his nastiest stuff. It makes thinking easier for catcher Yadier Molina, and harder for the hitter.

"It's easy for me to call any of his pitches, because I trust him to throw strikes," Molina said.

On Thursday night, for example, Wainwright didn't have his usual fastball, but he believed in the curve when it mattered most.

With two on and not wanting to load the bases for the Mets' Jose Reyes, who would line to center, Wainwright left pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd looking at a 2-2 pitch that hit its mark. With two strikes on Carlos Beltran and the bases full, Wainwright dropped another curve to the bottom of the zone to touch off a celebration.

In the Cards clubhouse, the gaps that might occur because of a lack of experience are being filled by teammates.

Isringhausen's influence has ranged from from technical to motivational to something between big brotherly and fatherly. For example, Wainwright's stepping back and deciding he was pitching for his daughter stems from Isringhausen's advice to not be afraid to step back and slow his emotions. Looper also has a deep relationship with Wainwright.

"I'm really close to Adam," Looper said. "We spend a lot of time together and talk about a lot of things. I don't want to take credit for what he's done, and share philosophies. But he's done an outstanding job. He's an incredible pitcher."

Understandably for a player that reaches such heights so quickly, Wainwright spent Friday wearing the bemused expression of someone still wrapped in the warm feeling of the previous night's celebration. But beneath the childish wonderment, the sting of disappointment from his previous time on a major stage drives him.

In 2003, Wainwright was supposed to be a key pitcher for Team USA's Olympic hopeful team. But he performed so poorly against Arizona Fall League clubs (1-1 with a 14.85 ERA, 15 hits in seven innings) that he was cut before the qualifying tournament in Mexico. The cut reached deep with him.

"Dave Stewart [Team USA's pitching coach] said something to me: 'I believe you have the stuff to be great, but it appears to me that you don't believe you can be great,'" Wainwright said. "At the time, I downplayed that.

"But then I got back in the offseason and started thinking he was right. It's one thing to say that you believe you can be good. It's another to believe it."

Now Baylie Grace has the gifts to prove it.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.