"Now," La Russa said, as best recalled by Wainwright, "we just have to decide if you're a starter or a closer."
Perhaps La Russa already knew the team's intent with the then-25-year-old right-hander who had just saved four postseason games, including two series clinchers. Or perhaps he just wanted to hear Wainwright's response. Whatever the motive, Wainwright answered with stubborn confidence.
"Well," he said, "I either want to pitch the ninth or pitch the first nine."
La Russa told Wainwright he liked that answer, respected it, too. Wainwright continued. He told his manager that if given the opportunity to start, he would be great and as reliable, as dogged a competitor, as driven for perfection as Chris Carpenter.
"Before, if I had said something like that, I would be saying without believing," Wainwright recalled. "But I had gotten to the point where I really believed it."
Six and a half years later, Wainwright sits not just in the Cardinals' rotation but atop it. He embodies the definition of staff ace, and, even after one season lost to right elbow surgery and another spent returning to form, Wainwright fits in the classification of elite. The five-year, $97.5 million extension he agreed to this week rewarded him for that.
The right-hander will start the Cardinals' season opener against the D-backs at 9:10 p.m. CT on Monday not only on the credentials of who he has been. The assignment was earned also because of who he will be for this 2013 team that, without Carpenter, clearly will look to Wainwright as a staff leader and tone setter. Lance Lynn described Wainwright as the staff "rock."
"He's a guy who, first and foremost, is a great teammate," Jake Westbrook said. "It's just the full package of a guy you look for in your ace. He has all those qualities. … You can learn a lot just by watching him. His attitude toward the game and how confident he is in his abilities and the mindset that he has, it's infectious. You can't help but be a better player, secondly, and a better person by just being around him."
Wainwright is now set to be around for many more years, too. After preparing for the season under a cloud of questions about his future, Wainwright removed any concern about possibly leaving via free agency at the end of the year by signing the extension.
Wainwright, 31, had desired resolution before the start of the season. Now, he'll be paid as the league's best have been, and it's hard to pick apart those demands. His 3.15 career ERA is second best among all active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings.
Since Wainwright dented the Cardinals rotation in 2007, his ERA ranks sixth best in the Majors. He's tied for 10th in the wins category (78) despite not throwing a pitch in 2011. Twice, Wainwright has finished in the top three in the vote for the National League Cy Young Award.
"I feel like I'm the guy that wants the ball in big situations," Wainwright said. "Probably most of our pitchers would tell you the same thing, but I expect the ball in big games. I haven't delivered a lot of nine-inning, one-hit performances. But I feel like throughout my career, the team has known what it could expect from me on the mound. It's not to be great and then have three average starts. I want to be really, really good all the time."
From 2007-10, Wainwright went 64-34 with a 2.93 ERA. He eclipsed the 200-innings mark three times in those four season. The righty wasn't as dominant in '12, but success should be defined differently in the first year back from Tommy John surgery. Wainwright made every scheduled start and fell only 1 1/3 innings short of pitching 200 regular-season innings.
He provided the Cardinals with some of his best work when it mattered most, too. The club won eight of Wainwright's last 11 starts last season..
"At the point when I was 7-10, I felt like I could still get to 20 wins," said Wainwright, who finished with a 14-13 record. "That was my mindset, that I could still go out and deliver an awesome performance. I thought I was going to do that. And my arm was just probably not ready to do that. I wanted it to be, and I prepared for it to be, but it wasn't there. I didn't always know what I was going to get out of my arm."
This year, though, is different. So comfortable is Wainwright with where his arm strength is that he dedicated much of spring not to mechanics but rather to improving his changeup, a pitch that he hopes will complement his fastball and curveball well.
Inside the clubhouse, Wainwright continues to captivate teammates with the way he carries himself. They watch his work ethic and the attention he pays to detail. They see him adding to his day by stopping to watch their bullpen sessions, and they appreciate that he doesn't see that as a burden, either.
"For us young guys, we can look up to him for an example on how to do it," Trevor Rosenthal said. "For him to be in the position that he's in, to have the success that he's had and to take the interest that he does in guys like me is really special. It also helps make us accountable to him in what we're doing. It's invaluable to us to have someone in that role that takes that interest."
With Carpenter's career closing, it's Wainwright who stands no longer as a co-ace but as the ace. He craves the expectations that come with that title because he laid them upon himself long before anyone else did.
"I don't feel any different this year with my role on the team than I have ever, except for maybe my first couple of years," Wainwright said. "The last couple of years, even when I was hurt, I still felt like I was a very important part of this team. I felt like I was an ace.
"And every time I take the ball, I expect to be the best pitcher in the game."