Count on it

ST. LOUIS – Adam Wainwright just had thrown 126 pitches, and his right arm did not fall off. It hung unencumbered, Wainwright eschewing standard postgame procedure where starting pitchers mummify their throwing arms in ice packs. He prefers going au natural with his appendage, figuring ice constricts the blood flow that promotes healing.

"I do have exceptions," Wainwright said, walking toward the St. Louis Cardinals' trainer's room. "I am going to ice today."

With good reason. Of the nearly 5,000 starts that major league pitchers will make this season, perhaps a dozen will end the way Wainwright's did Saturday, with more than 125 pitches thrown. Pitch count is a touchy subject among baseball enthusiasts, and the sides align with the fervor of Obama and Clinton supporters.

Surely Barack, sticking to his theme of change, would hang his head in shame at Cardinals manager Tony La Russa's decision to keep Wainwright in for a long ninth inning and watch him end his day by throwing seven straight sliders to Houston's Hunter Pence. Wainwright is 26, the ace of the Cardinals' staff, and to risk any kind of arm injury by declining to yank him from an April game ought to earn La Russa a date with an arm-abuse counselor.

Hillary, of course, is adamant that the old way works just fine, and in this case, bully for La Russa. Instead of bowing to pitch-count theories that sound all well and good but have mixed results when studied, La Russa stuck with the pitcher he felt could best keep the score tied at 3, let him work through some temporary wildness and was rewarded when the Cardinals scored a run in the bottom of the ninth.

Damn the numbers, La Russa seemed to be saying, and he confirmed as much after the game.

"We don't get caught up in that pitch-count stuff," he said. "I think it's overplayed. It's a measure of conditioning. You watch the game sometimes, a guy is worn out after 70 or 80. Some days, it'll get up around 130, 140. But this is April, and you don't want to."

Forget 130 and 140. Teams simply don't allow pitchers in that range anymore, the lone examples last season are Orlando Hernandez and A.J. Burnett, both of whom threw 130. Even 125 seems too many, enough to send out a red alert on the Pitcher's Arm Advisory System. Last season, only 14 times did a starter exceed 125 pitches.

Considering La Russa's inattention to pitch counts, perhaps it's happenstance that the last Cardinal to throw more than 125 was Jason Marquis with 132 pitches – nearly three years ago. The year before that, he stretched Matt Morris that far once, and La Russa went 125-plus twice in each of the previous three years.

Go back one more season, to 2000, and the number of starts of more than 125 pitches is staggering: 160 across baseball, nine by Livan Hernandez, eight by Randy Johnson and seven by Rick Helling alone. Twenty years ago, nearly 7 percent of games saw the starter go more than 125.

Number of starts with
at least 125 pitches

2007: 14
2006: 26
2005: 31
2004: 46
2003: 70
2002: 69
2001: 74
2000: 160
1999: 179
1998: 212
1997: 141
1996: 195

Now, Wainwright does it one time and it becomes a heated – albeit legitimate – point of discussion. He admits to watching his pitch count on the scoreboard. That way, Wainwright said, if he nibbles too much and starts to waste pitches, he can psyche himself into bearing down.

"More than anything, pitch count-wise, it's how you get to the number," Wainwright said. "Do you throw 50 in the first inning and cruise after that? Do you throw 12 in each inning? Do you have guys on base grinding the entire time? Mentally, it's where you fatigue more than anything."

At times Saturday, Wainwright looked drained. He gave up a home run to Kazuo Matsui. He threw a fastball behind Brad Ausmus that nearly incited a brawl and could have gotten him tossed on his 28th pitch. He yielded two more solo homers to Lance Berkman. His fastball was inconsistent, his curveball up, his stuff dull compared to a butter knife.

Yet La Russa trusts Wainwright, in large part because of two years ago. Back then, Wainwright was a rookie and the Cardinals a playoff team. Because of their starting-pitching depth, St. Louis moved Wainwright to the bullpen. By the postseason, he was closing, his curveball freezing Carlos Beltran to send the Cardinals to the World Series, his slider striking out Brandon Inge to win it.

"It's what you earn," La Russa said. "Part of it is what he showed when he was a reliever in '06. He's very good with men on base. He's very good making pitches when he has to. … You watch and see a guy all game long. When he starts to change, it means most times he's losing stuff, getting tired, losing concentration."

All subjective measures, which suffice for La Russa. Pitch-count students prefer objective analyses, and those emphasize that pitch counts can help prevent injuries. Little League instituted pitch-count rules last season. And Baseball Prospectus' latest incarnation of Pitcher Abuse Points, also known as PAP, tries to improve upon an initial theory that rang somewhat hollow in trying to link the number of pitches thrown with future arm trouble and ineffectiveness.

There is no magic number. Some argue anything more than 100 is troublesome. Others prefer 120. And then those against pitch counts point to Nolan Ryan throwing 162 as a 42-year-old and bemoan the wussification of Major League Baseball.

Prior to Saturday, the highest this season had been 122 by San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, who doesn't ice after starts, either. At 6-foot-7, Wainwright stands 8 inches taller than Lincecum and has an ideal pitcher's build, long and lean and strong. La Russa seems to enjoy using him accordingly: Wainwright threw 121 pitches in one game last season, his first in the big leagues as a starter, and his highest this year came in Milwaukee, with 115.

Wainwright likes to think his stamina comes from a routine that includes unusually short bullpen sessions between games, when he throws only 30 pitches. He saves them, he likes to say, for when it counts.

And though it merely was an afternoon game in April, the Cardinals' 25th of the season, Wainwright kept trotting out to the mound, nine times in all, and wheeled his arm around 126 times, plus another 70 or so for warmup pitches, because a win counts just as much now as it does in September.

"You've always got a little bit left," Wainwright said. "There's always a little bit left in the tank."

Unless it hits empty.