Batters find way to drill Cards ace

Thursday, March 20, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. -- Adam Wainwright has been tough to hit this spring -- not counting the balls that have struck him.

Besides the usual post-game ice wrap on his shoulder after his last start, the St. Louis Cardinals' right-hander also had his left thigh wrapped. That's where he absorbed a hard smash up the middle by the Mets' Luis Castillo during the first inning.

"I knew right when I got hit it was going to sting and there was going to be a gi-normous bruise tomorrow," Wainwright said.

Dodging sharply hit comebackers has been an occupational hazard for the 6-foot-7 right-hander, a 14-game winner as a rookie and now the de facto ace preparing for his first opening day start. He's got a nasty, vibrant bruise on his right ankle from two starts ago, courtesy of Florida's Alfredo Amezaga. Plus Wainwright took a ball off his foot in the start in between.

All three times, Wainwright noted, line-drive hitters just going with the pitch found a way to hit it right back at him. He remembers getting hit a lot in the minor leagues, too, when he'd throw it straight down the middle and "guys just roped the ball all over the place."

"It's not like they're breaking down the walls, but line drives up the middle means they're on the ball," Wainwright said. "They're sinkers over the plate and down, but they're seeing them and hitting them."

Well, not too often. Wainwright allowed only two hits, including a home run by Raul Casanova, and needed only 67 pitches to get through five innings for the second straight start. He has a 2.80 spring ERA, following up on a sterling second half last season when his 2.71 ERA was third-best in the NL.

Wainwright is not a big name yet, even though he got the last out of the 2006 World Series as the stand-in closer for injured Jason Isringhausen. But he's not shy about his desire to pitch in the big games, getting a big kick out of pitching against Mets ace Johan Santana on Saturday, even if it's spring training.

"I just thrive off that, I feed off that, I love it," Wainwright said. "That's the ultimate competition when you're going against the game's best, and he's proven he is.

"The most fun you can have as a pitcher is having the No. 1 going against you and the best hitter at bat against you. Every kid dreams about pitching against Santana or some kind of Santana, somebody who's a true ace."

The Cardinals believe Wainwright someday may fit that description and earn the opening day start even if the likes of Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder are healthy and ready to go. Pitching coach Dave Duncan said Wainwright only needs to stay sharp in his final two spring tuneups.

"Adam did everything he's supposed to do to be a good pitcher," Duncan said. "He got ahead in the count, he used all his pitches and threw strikes with everything, threw a lot of curves for strikes. He was very good."

Wainwright didn't mind stopping at 67 pitches against the Mets, even though he showed no signs of fatigue, realizing that others had to get their work in. He's thrown a team-high 16 innings and capitalized on a bullpen session between starts to fine-tune mechanics.

"You can do a lot of cool things if you have all your pitches in the zone working," Wainwright said. "Guys don't really know what in the world to look for."

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