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Cardinals turn to old reliable in Adam Wainwright

Adam Wainwright will draw the start for the Cardinals in Game 1.

Robert Deutsch/USA Today

Adam Wainwright will draw the start for the Cardinals in Game 1.

After throwing 96 pitches in seven innings, Adam Wainwright could feel his tank emptying.

It was the drain of pouring everything into a Game 4 NLCS start last season against a San Francisco Giants team that would not stay down no matter how many times the Cardinals kicked them.

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It was the pressure of having something to prove after taking one on the chin in his previous start, when he was tagged for six runs in just 2 innings in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

Even if the Giants hadn’t rallied to beat the Cardinals in seven games, escaping a 3-1 series deficit, Wainwright wasn’t sure how much he had left.

“If I’m being honest, after Game 4 of the NLCS, I may have had one more start in me,” he said. “I was pretty well spent. I gave every single thing I had.”

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in February 2011, Wainwright put 198 innings on his arm in the 2012 regular season, and then piled on 15 more in the postseason.

None of the pitches in his arsenal ever felt quite right.

“I had terrible stuff last year,” said Wainwright. “I was trying to find a way to make it work. There would be days where my stuff would be OK, and there would be days where I didn’t have any stuff at all.”

The only pitch that didn’t feel foreign was his curveball.

“That saved me last year,” Wainwright said. “Especially when I had no stuff to rely on except for that pitch.”

But things started to come naturally again when he began preparing for this season.

“I felt from the very first day of long toss in the offseason, strong,” Wainwright said. “Where the very first throw the ball came out of my hand this offseason, and it was like seeing that old friend you hadn’t seen in a long time. It was like, there it is. And not to say that I have the best stuff in the world, because we’ve got 15 guys on the team who throw harder with better breaking balls than I do, but to have my stuff return was pretty exciting.”

That strength showed in the career-high 241 innings he threw this season.

With the way the Cardinals’ young blowtorch, Michael Wacha, has been pitching this postseason, it would have been reasonable for manager Mike Matheny to give the 22-year-old rookie the nod as the World Series Game 1 starter.

But with 16 playoff appearances on his résumé (three in the World Series), no one’s more trusted in this environment than Wainwright.

“We threw him into a situation last year where he was much better than anybody anticipated and was able to throw more than what many people thought he would,” Matheny said. “This year he showed up a little more crisp, a little more life on the ball, and that breaking ball had a completely different look to it than what it did last year.

“It shouldn’t have been a surprise. It takes time when you have that radical surgery to be able to get back to normal. And he has been very, very impressive to watch, Cy Young-caliber season.”

It will be Wainwright’s first Game 1 start in the World Series.

“I’m not surprised I’m pitching Game 1,” Wainwright said. “I do think that for years and years to come, we’re going to have — those guys are going to push me, if I want to keep pitching Game 1s. They’re incredibly talented, they’re pitching great. And I couldn’t ask for a better band of mates going forward.”

The moment each one of the Cardinals’ talented young pitchers first walked through the clubhouse, Wainright went out of his way to find them, shake their hand, and introduce himself.

“Something I like to do when we get a young guy, so that they know they can be comfortable around me,” Wainwright said.

No one was a bigger mentor to Wainwright than sidelined starter Chris Carpenter, and Wainwright said he’s just paying it forward.

“When you start talking about all the young talent that we bring in the club, if you don’t have a couple of guys standing at the top telling them and showing them how it’s supposed to be done, you’re set up for failure,” Matheny said.

Right now, the Cardinals like they way things are lined up. And Wainwright feels like he has more plenty in the tank.

“I don’t want to make it like an ordinary game,” Wainwright said. “I want this to mean even more than regular games. What I found throughout my playoff career so far is that I respond really well when the adrenaline really kicks in. I love that. The crowd gets louder. I get more fired up. That’s something that I just — I can’t tell you how cool it is to pitch in front of great crowds like we’re going to have here in Boston, and we’re going to have in St. Louis with that crisp, cool air, that Octobery kind of air, where you know it’s playoff baseball.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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