MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Matheny can be confident in rested, ready Wainwright

Matheny can be confident in rested, ready Wainwright

The St. Louis Cardinals bought themselves some breathing room. They wrapped up their National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games. They avoided a win-or-go-home Game 5. More important, they put to rest the debate over whether Adam Wainwright would be able to pitch a Game 5.

Manager Mike Matheny's job got easier.

As big a challenge as any for Matheny is getting a read on Wainwright, who is one of the game's great competitors. It's his strength. But it also can be a liability.

  Date Recaps Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 SF 3, STL 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 12 STL 5, SF 4 video
Gm 3 Oct. 14 SF 5, STL 4 video
Gm 4 Oct. 15 SF 6, STL 4 video
Gm 5 Oct. 16 SF 6, STL 3 video

Wainwright wants to be on the mound, particularly in a big game. He relishes the challenge. It's what makes him special.

Wainwright, however, has proven human. He can have aches and pains just like everybody else.

For most of the season, Wainwright has been dealing with tendinitis in his right elbow. It's not the kind of thing that is expected to require any surgery. The best cure is rest, but rest isn't easy in the middle of the regular season, much less in the postseason.

But now Wainwright is rested and ready to go in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on FOX) against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium. He's had a full week off since he last took the mound, in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory over the Dodgers in the opening game of the NLDS.

That gives Matheny a chance to be more confident in setting up his NLCS rotation than he was prior to Game 4 of the NLDS, when he said it was likely -- not definitely -- going to be Wainwright if the Cards had to play a Game 5. Lance Lynn was even put on call to be ready for that start, just in case.

It's how things are with the Cardinals. And they have worked to make sure it's not a big deal, even though it is an area of concern.

The Cards, after all, did win the NL Central and advance to the NLCS for the fourth consecutive season, so it's not as though Wainwright has been a burden. Anything but. He's been the foundation for an otherwise young rotation.

Whereas July 31 addition John Lackey is 35, Wainwright, at 33, is the greybeard of the pre-Lackey rotation. Lynn is 27, Shelby Miller just turned 24 and Michael Wacha, in the bullpen this postseason, is 23.

Now the challenge is to win a World Series. Enter Wainwright. He is the anchor, but Matheny knows there's no sense pushing him. It's that time of year when the wear and tear starts to show.

Check out the first 16 games of this postseason -- the two one-game Wild Card matchups and the four Division Series. Starting pitchers went a combined 7-8.

And the big names?

Well, Wainwright did give up six runs in those 4 1/3 innings in his NLDS appearance, and Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the anticipated NL Cy Young Award winner and NL MVP Award winner, gave up eight runs in 6 2/3 innings of that same game. Kershaw also took the elimination loss, allowing three runs in six-plus innings of Game 4.

Madison Bumgarner, who will start Game 1 for the Giants, shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game, but he was charged with San Francisco's lone loss in the NLDS.

Kansas City's James Shields has the nickname "Big Game" -- although that's really a tribute to James Worthy -- and will start Game 1 against Baltimore in the American League Championship Series on tonight (8 ET on TBS), but he allowed four runs in five innings of the AL Wild Card Game with Oakland.

Detroit's Justin Verlander gave up three runs in five-plus innings of his AL Division Series start, and teammate Max Scherzer gave up five runs in 7 1/3 innings of his. Angels lefty C.J. Wilson gave up more runs (three) than he got outs (two) in the Halos' ALDS elimination loss.

That's why there's no sense pushing Wainwright now. The Cardinals need him as close to full strength as possible, and he has done well with that extra caution this season.

Wainwright made 11 of his 32 regular-season starts on five or more days of rest. He went 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA in those starts, compared with 12-7 with a 2.45 ERA on four days' rest, which certainly isn't shabby.

And the week-long break Wainwright will have had between his NLDS start and the Game 1 NLCS assignment is just the fourth-longest break he has had this year. Thanks to off-days, Matheny was able to give Wainwright a 10-day rest in mid-June. With the All-Star break in the middle, Wainwright had nine days off between mid-July starts.

And when the Pirates lost on the final day of the regular season, clinching the NL Central title for the Cards, Wainwright was scratched from a start that afternoon in Arizona to provide him a chance to have 10 days between his final start of the regular season and Game 1 of the NLDS.

Get the message?

The Cardinals do.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.