Wainwright to face Giants in Game 1, but questions persist about his health

By Morris Phillips

Baseball players are made great by what they do in the playoffs and World Series.  But if your a pitcher trying to achieve greatness, it can come with a price.  Trying to rare back and summon the heat in October after a long season filled with aches and pains can put the type of stress on a throwing arm that can shorten a player’s career.

Ask Rob Nen, who threw the final pitch of his big league career in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series for the Giants.  The flame throwing reliever had been fantastic up to that point in the Giants’ oh-so-close run to the 2002 title. Nen was on to protect the Giants 5-4 lead after starter Russ Ortiz and relievers Scott Eyre, Felix Rodridguez and Tim Worrell were unable to slow the momentum built by the Angels who trailed 5-0 after the top half of the seventh inning.  But three runs in the seventh, and another in the eighth had the Angels on the verge of miraculous comeback.

Nen entered the game that night having already converted all seven of his save opportunities, including two earlier in the World Series, in the 2002 post-season.  The eighth save opportunity for Nen set a major league-record, his seven saves tied a record he now shares with four other relievers, most recently accomplished by Boston’s Koji Uehara in 2013.

But Nen wasn’t healthy that night.  His shoulder soreness would have shelved him had it been a regular season game.  But with the world title on the line, Dusty Baker tabbed his closer to protect a one-run lead.  But Nen was perfect, he allowed a two-run double to Troy Glaus that gave the Angels the lead.  They would go on to win Game 6 and then win again in Game 7 to snatch the title from the Giants.

For Nen, the Game 6 loss began a series of three surgeries needed to repair his torn rotator cuff with a tear in his shoulder that was quite significant.  Over the next two seasons, and while Nen was fulfilling the final two years on a $32.5 million contract signed with the Giants, the reliever rehabbed without ever gaining his full health.  When the 2004 season ended, the Giants and other clubs decided not to take a chance on Nen, effectively ending his big-league career.

Others have been dealt post-season related arm issues that curtailed or ended their big-league careers.  Mark Mulder made three post-season starts in 2005 amid rumors that he was hurt.  Then after an injury-shortened 2006, Mulder was never the same.  He attempted to resuscitate his career in 2007 and 2008 without success.

St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter made six October starts in 2011 while receiving treatment on his elbow.  Carpenter went 4-0 that post-season and the Cardinals raced to the World Series title over Texas.  But Carpenter never was the same, pitching just 17 regular-season innings in 2012, which was his last as a big-leaguer.

Closer Brian Wilson for the Giants was integral piece in the Giants’ run to the 2010 title.  But he was relegated to a cheerleader role in the 2012 run, and he didn’t resume his career until midway through the 2013 season when the Dodgers took a chance on him.

Now, with Adam Wainwright announced as the Cardinals starter in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday in St. Louis, the questions again persist.  Wainwright’s right elbow has been giving him issues, and it appeared to be a factor in his start last week against the Dodgers  The big right hander allowed 11 hits to the Dodgers, but survived when the Cardinals were able to touch Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw for eight runs in a 9-8 win.  Wainwright insisted that despite the elbow issues and his poor outing that he would have been ready for a potential Game 5 against Los Angeles.

Now after two days of speculation, Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has confirmed that Wainwright’s his guy for Game 1.  Matheny said that Wainwright’s leash will be short if he struggles like he did against the Dodgers.  But the manager maintained that his guy is healthy and ready to go.

“Waino was struggling to find a good feel in that Game 1 (against the Dodgers),” Matheny said.  “That’s why it looked very atypical of Adam Wainwright, but that’s happened at different times throughout the season.  He’s been able to figure it out and make it work–not just make it work but be an elite pitcher.  He’s fine.  We’ll just watch him close.”

Madison Bumgarner of the Giants will oppose Wainwright in Saturday’s contest which begins at 5:07pm PST.

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