The tone of this post was originally going to be my best attempt at concealed bragging that the 2015 version of the St. Louis Cardinals is their most complete team in a long time – and that includes the ’13 squad which won 97 games and the NL Pennant.  But then in the top of the 5th inning of Saturday night’s game, Adam Wainwright came up lame when he tried to run out of the batter’s box on a pop fly.  He wasn’t necessarily helped off the field (“escorted” would be appropriate), but it was clear that he couldn’t put all of his weight on his left ankle and that he wasn’t coming back into the game.  And, of course, Wainwright was cruising up until that point.  He had faced the minimum number of batters through four innings – partially on account of some truly awful base running by the Brewers, but still – and had thrown only 35 pitches.

After the game, he had this to say about how he felt on the mound:

“It was by far the best I’ve felt this year.”

And he also said this regarding the injury:

“I’m thinking what in the heck just hit me. I thought the catcher’s mask must have hit me. Or the bat must have hit me.”

I have no medical training, but I know enough that if you feel as though something that just isn’t there is hitting you, then that isn’t good. And, as we all feared, Ken Rosenthal reported early Sunday morning that it was indeed an Achilles injury.  The MRI is set for today, but Wainwright is likely out for the season.

So what now?  First, I probably favor the designated hitter in the NL, but this particular incident doesn’t move the needle much for me on the issue.  If you watch the replay, Wainwright took a normal step out of the batter’s box and planted and that’s when it happened.  It was a very natural movement.  My guess is that this same injury could have occurred had he been running off the mound, going down a flight of stairs, or dancing in the dugout.

Second, this hopefully isn’t doomsday for the Cardinals, but it certainly is awful news for a guy who deserves better.  We deserve better.  I love watching this guy pitch.  Wainwright is their “workhorse,” the soul of their team.  On nights when his curve ball is sharp, the effortlessness that seems to go into him freezing batters and mowing through a lineup is a thing of beauty.

One of the more disappointing aspects of Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off home run in Game 5 to end the 2014 NLCS was that it displaced what should have been the narrative from that evening.  Wainwright hadn’t had a particularly good 2014 postseason leading up to this game.  He got knocked around in Game 1 of the NLCS vs. the Dodgers, and then took the loss in Game 1 of the NLDS even though he pitched pretty well.  Madison Bumgarner just happened to be better that night.  Not a big deal, it wasn’t the last time someone was bested by Bumgarner in the 2014 postseason, and Wainwright had nothing left to prove to me.  Yet, there were still silly whispers in certain corners of the fan base that he was no longer the ace he had once been, or that he didn’t “have it” in big games.  Truth is, he was actually injured, and would have elbow surgery soon after the 2014 postseason.  He was also over-worked, having pitched 463 total innings in 2013 and 2014.  But on the night of Game 5, Wainwright stood tall and delivered one of the more gutsy and impressive starts of his career.  He went seven innings, struck out seven, and only allowed four hits and two runs.  It’s one of my favorite moments of his career.  But because of a Michael Morse solo home run off Pat Neshek in the 8th inning, and some well-discussed managerial misconduct in the 9th inning leading to Ishikawa’s walk-off, Wainwright was robbed of what should have been his moment.  Again, that shouldn’t be a big deal, that’s baseball.  But for a lot of Cardinals fans, Saturday night’s injury makes Game 5 even more of a shame.

When he handled the Cubs on opening night to kick off this season, for the first time I had legitimate discussions with the person sitting next to me on whether Wainwright was a Hall of Famer.  Here was another season upon us, and there was Wainwright steady as ever as all the great ones are.  Along with Yadier Molina, he’s the one constant in the clubhouse who I foolishly assume will always be with the team.  Again, the injury is just a shame.

As far as the Cardinals go, it’s not crazy to think even without Wainwright all’s going to be fine.  They lost their ugliest game of the season yesterday 6-3 to the Brewers to drop their record to 12-5, which is still good for two games ahead of the Cubs atop the NL Central.  Their entire pitching staff, even aside from Wainwright, has been fantastic.  In fact, of the five starters, Wainwright’s 1.44 ERA at the time of his injury is good for only third.  Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez lead the rotation at 1.33 and 1.35, respectively.  Lance Lynn’s ERA was sitting at 1.56 before getting tagged for six runs in five innings yesterday by the Brewers.  And John Lackey’s unsightly 4.34 might not be quite as unsightly as it looks given that the five runs he gave up in his last start were all from the same stupid inning filled with errors and hijinx, a rally which the Nationals began with one out and no one on base and Doug Fister at the plate.

The bullpen has been great, too.  Trevor Rosenthal has completed all seven save opportunities and has a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings pitched.  Perhaps most importantly, Rosenthal’s hits and walks allowed per nine innings are down dramatically from last year.  Jordan Walden has been relied on heavily, but so far has been better than most hoped.  And Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, and Matt Belisle have been more than admirable in 20.1 total innings.  Heading into Sunday the Cardinals’ staff, starters and relievers alike, leads all of baseball with a 1.99 ERA.  The Mets are second at 2.96.  The Cardinals have only given up 32 earned runs this season.  The Royals are second with 51.  And they also lead the league in batting average against at .210, with the Rays just behind at .214.

The Cardinals are not hitting a lot of home runs, which we expected (13 to be exact, which ranks near the bottom of MLB), but their hitters are finding the gaps and the team is slugging a respectable .397.  And what we didn’t expect was Matt Carpenter to be possibly better than his ’13 MVP-caliber form.  He’s hitting .388/.438/.672, and is on pace for 95 doubles, which is just fun to see in print.  Matt Holliday is hitting .358/.478/.434 and Jhonny Peralta isn’t slouching it either at .328/.353/.516.  Jason Heyward has not looked right (.214/.236/.371), but his BABIP is currently well below his career average and you can put me in the camp of believing that it’s just a matter of time before he gets going.  (Heyward left yesterday’s game in the 3rd inning with a groin injury but he’s listed as day-to-day and it doesn’t sound like he’s going to miss any time.)

I know all of this and yet I still can’t shake the feeling that Wainwright’s injury might derail the season.  For starters, we still don’t really know all that much about this team.  Barely a tenth of the season has been completed, which means come July some of the numbers I emphasized above might look a bit silly.  Fifteen of the Cardinals’ 17 games have been against teams with a combined 19-37 record.  It’s true the Cardinals play in what is possibly the toughest division in baseball, but they’ve been fortunate so far to only have had two games against the teams in the division that are actually good.  To they’re credit, they’ve gone 9-3 against the Reds and Brewers, which is exactly what good teams should do.  Unfortunately, the month of May is not as kind and 23 of their games are against the Cubs, Pirates, Tigers, Mets, Royals, and Dodgers.   When facing a barrage of Kershaw, Arrieta, Price, and Harvey, it would be nice to be able to throw Wainwright’s name back at them.

And just who will Wainwright’s replacement be?  On Tuesday, before the injury obviously, Cardinals’ beat writer Jenifer Langosch of noted on the MLB Extras podcast that she’d put the Cardinals rotation up against anyone in the NL.  Absolutely.  But without Wainwright, the Cardinals starting rotation suddenly seems remarkably thin.  Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an informative column yesterday breaking down Wainwright’s likely replacements.  As he noted, LHP Marco Gonzales, who competed for the fifth rotation spot this spring, is currently on the 7-day DL at Triple A Memphis due to soreness in his left pectoral.  It’s not serious, and even though Miklasz suggests that given Gonzales’s age, he’d likely be subject to an innings restriction, he would be my first choice.  Although he didn’t win the last rotation spot, Gonzales had a very good spring and has also already logged several MLB starts in 2014.  The other two likely options from within are LHPs Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons.  Neither dazzle but both have some upside.  Cooney is putting up solid numbers in Memphis and Lyons has MLB experience and started 12 games for the Cardinals in 2014.  Oft-injured LHP Jaime Garcia, who was fretted over all spring until finding himself injured again, doesn’t seem to be realistically in the mix right now.  And a trade this early in the season doesn’t seem feasible.  The Cardinals don’t have a ton of leverage and, to reiterate one of Miklasz’s points, there’s no reason for a team like the Phillies to entertain offers for someone like Cole Hamels this early in the season.

It wasn’t long after Wainwright went down for the first tweet to show up in my feed reminding the masses that the last time Wainwright missed a season due to injury the Cardinals won the World Series.  I support that line of thinking, but I would be remiss not to mention that the 2011 Cardinals had another ace in Chris Carpenter and an elite slugger named Albert Pujols.  Those guys are gone.  If the first three weeks are any indication, we can hope that the 2015 Cardinals might be built to overcome this injury as well, but missing out on watching Wainwright pitch this season is still going to be a shame.

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