Brian Snitker knows Adam Wainwright well. The Braves manager was one of Wainwright’s coaches when the pitcher was a prospect in Atlanta’s system, and the two have remained close over the last two decades. It’s why this series — one that featured the National League’s best and one of its worst — packed so much meaning for both parties.
There is an emotional connection for Wainwright in Atlanta. The St. Louis Cardinals starter spent his childhood rooting for the Braves on TBS before being drafted by them in the 29th round of the 2000 MLB Draft. He’s always had a strong rapport with Snitker, even as the two advanced their careers through different organizations.
“I’m so proud of him and his career, and love the guy,” Snitker said a day before Wainwright’s start at Truist Park. “I said, ‘You’re going to have a statue at Busch Stadium.’ He’s had an unbelievable career.”
It was important for Wainwright to take the mound in Atlanta one final time. He wasn’t originally scheduled to pitch against the Braves, but he needed additional recovery time after his previous start against the San Diego Padres, so the Cardinals incorporated extra rest days that lined up to allow Wainwright to face his former organization.
It’s no secret Wainwright’s swan song hasn’t carried much of a tune. Set to retire at the end of the season, entered Thursday carding an 8.10 ERA and 1.98 WHIP over 18 games. His quest for 200 career wins has stalled for two months — Wainwright recorded win No. 198 on June 17 at Citi Field against the New York Mets — and with the Cardinals having won just 61 games, he’ll surely come up empty on his desires to return to the postseason.
That hardly matters to Snitker.
“What he’s done for the game, the city of St. Louis and his community — he’s just a great, great person,” he said, “and like I say, I’m just very proud of him and the career that he’s had. Because I think the world of the guy.”
Wainwright did not fare well against the Braves on Thursday night. Facing off against the league’s most potent offense, he allowed six earned runs on eight hits, walked three and struck out four while gutting out 104 pitches over 5 2/3 innings. Atlanta hit four homers, including two by MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr., to win 8-4 and salvage the final game of the three-game series.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) September 8, 2023
Wainwright was adamant that Thursday’s start didn’t pack extra emotion.
“I treated it like every other start, focused and prepared,” Wainwright told reporters in Atlanta after the game. “We had a good game there for a minute, just let it slip away at the end. … As the game wore on, I got a little sharper and sharper until the very end there.”
But even with his stat line falling far short of the standard he set for 17 years in the majors, Wainwright is still regarded as a generational talent. Just ask the opposing clubhouse.
“He’s a winner, and he’s a pitcher,” Braves starter Max Fried said after notching a quality start en route to the win. “Whether he’s mid-90s or in the high 80s, he’s still able to change speeds, mix it up, throw the ball on both sides of the plate, keep hitters off balance. He’s been doing it for a long time at an extremely high level. I see a lot of similarities in myself and him — big curveball; to be able to sink it, cut it, bunch of different little things. It’s always a treat to be able to watch him pitch.”
“Wainwright’s a living legend,” Acuña Jr. added. “He deserves all the respect that he gets. With that said, I just feel like we have a really good team … we’re really balanced.”
And, of course, there was Snitker, who made it very clear he is still rooting for Wainwright in his milestone pursuit — not that there was any doubt otherwise.
“Where he’s at right now, he still can maneuver the ball, spin it,” Snitker said. “I really hope he gets that 200th (win). I hope he can win his next two starts, that would be awesome for him.”
One look at the calendar will show that Wainwright’s major-league career is almost out of runway. With a little more than three weeks left in the regular season, Wainwright has no more than five starts remaining. His three starts prior to Thursday represented perhaps his most consistent stretch this season. He logged at least six innings twice, and two of those outings served as quality starts. He has been more effective in the zone, but the wins remain elusive despite manager Oli Marmol’s best efforts.
Wainwright logged 90 pitches after five innings Thursday but trailed only 4-3. Marmol made the decision to send Wainwright out in hopes he could get through one more inning, which would have given the offense one more opportunity to put runs on the board. But Wainwright faltered and served up homers to Michael Harris II and Acuña Jr., which ended his night.
“I wanted to give him one more inning, give him a shot to go back out there and try to get another zero, and then give our offense a chance to come through,” Marmol said. “The homers chased him.”
You thought @MoneyyyMikeee wouldn’t hit a homer on his headband giveaway night? 💸
You thought wrong. pic.twitter.com/2V31rrz3OJ
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) September 8, 2023
The Cardinals are in a precarious position in this final month of the season. They are trying to avoid a last-place finish in their division for the first time since 1990. They are also trying to evaluate individual performances to jump-start their offseason plans. But St. Louis is also doing everything it can to win two more games for Wainwright. In fairness, Wainwright is also doing all he can, as well.
Perhaps the result Thursday night was fitting in that regard. Before the game, Wainwright was reminded of the beginning of his career when Snitker presented him with a framed photo of his 2002 Futures Game performance, back when Wainwright was the Braves’ top prospect. And as he walked off the mound at Truist Park, he was reminded of what he’s accomplished in the 21 years since that photo was taken, and what else he’d like to accomplish before his career comes to a close.
— The Athletic’s David O’Brien contributed to this report from Atlanta.
(Photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)