The secret to Adam Wainwright’s success? A curveball like none other

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”

FASTBALLS JET ACROSS the baseball atmosphere in this era, booming into catchers’ mitts at 100 mph or faster, and amid that sound of speed, there is Adam Wainwright’s curveball.

The hot air balloon of pitches. Spinning peacefully in descent, moving more slowly than an I-70 commuter, yet still magnificent in its distinction.

“It feels like someone is standing on a ladder and dropping it over the plate,” said Joey Votto, the Reds’ first baseman who has 73 plate appearances against Wainwright, his most against any pitcher. “It’s really difficult to discern where it’s going to land, ball or strike.”

Wainwright’s career spans 18 major league seasons so far, an impressive accumulation of innings, strikeouts, wins and Cy Young votes. But when he returns to throw ceremonial first pitches in St. Louis, or maybe enters Cooperstown, his time and effort will be encapsulated with video of a single pitch, thrown the way his older brother taught him at age 12: that curveball that he dropped into the strike zone against the Mets’ Carlos Beltran to end the National League Championship Series in 2006.

“Over the years, my arm angle has changed a little bit,” Wainwright said. “The way I take my arm back has changed a little bit. It’s shaped a little different. But it’s been the one pitch that I could always rely on, and I could know how it’s going to come out. I could throw it as hard as I could possibly throw it, and it’s going to come out 75 mph.”

The pitch has been a constant in his baseball life, distinguishing him from other draft-eligible players when the Braves picked him in the first round in the 2000 draft, fueling the interest of the Cardinals before they asked for him in a J.D. Drew trade in 2003, carrying him still as he closes in on his 41st birthday next month.

His average fastball has dipped from 91.1 mph in 2010, the season before he had Tommy John surgery, to his current 88.6 mph. But for Wainwright, there is always the curveball. “If I didn’t have my curveball,” he said, “I don’t get out of A-ball.”

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