As the St. Louis Cardinals prepare to battle their way back into a playoff spot this weekend in Chicago, it is very likely the phrase “just treat it like any other game” may be put out there a few times.
But when the season may literally hang in the balance, how does a player go about making that a reality instead of cliché?
“The easiest thing to do when you get into these big games is tighten up and to let the moment overtake you,” Adam Wainwright said. “What Yadi and I are always preaching is to just relax and enjoy the game and know that when you’ve prepared, that you’re ready for the game and go out and play.”
Wainwright will take the mound on Friday to open the series for St. Louis in Chicago. The Cardinals will enter the game 1.0 games in back of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second National League Wild Card spot. St. Louis will need help from San Francisco to beat LA, but they must also handle their own business against the Cubs.
“If you are prepared and you’re doing things the way you should be doing between outings, between at-bats, or between games–whatever it is, then when that moment arrives just trust in your preparedness and go out there and play the game,” continued Wainwright.
“That’s how big time players do well in big moments, they don’t let the moment overtake them. They’re able to slow down and kind of slow the game down is a good way to put it. Slow the game down and keep their nerves under lock and key because it is super easy once you feel the crowd, once you feel the magnitude of the moment to just get overwhelmed with it very quickly.”
The moment didn’t get any bigger for Wainwright as a rookie back in 2006 when he was on the mound in Game 7 of the NLCS against the New York Mets. Advised by Jason Isringhausen, Wainwright was able to collect himself even with the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the 9th.
“He told me in those big moments, just step off and breathe and slow the game down–I literally did that,” Wainwright recalled. “The first two guys got on base and my heart was racing. My mind was racing. I stepped off and I just took a deep breath and I just slowed the situation down. It refocused me completely and I got everybody out from then on.”
So it’s just basic science. Take a little breath and let the oxygen do it’s magic.
“It was a big breath,” smiled Wainwright. “It makes a huge difference. It’s something that unless you’ve been in that situation you don’t understand. It’s something that is so different–when you’re standing on the mound or you’re standing at the plate with 50,000 people standing there over watching you, but you also know there’s millions of people watching on tv. Everybody, there’s people with Cardinals tattoos, Cardinals decals and floormats in their car, stickers on their windows, shirts everyday to school–you can let that get to your head if you don’t watch out. It’s good to have those guys who’ve been through that kind of teach you through it.”
“It’s a huge deal,” echoed Michael Wacha about taking a deep breath. “Sometimes the game can speed up on you. It’s important to just take a moment, breathe, gather yourself, and go back to work.”
Like Wainwright seven years earlier, Wacha pointed to his first post season experience in 2013.
“The guys who we had in the clubhouse who were talking and leading the way–it was Waino, Yadi, Beltran, Holliday, we had some guys–Freese was on there,” he said. “We had some guys who had done it for a long time. They would just keep preaching ‘just keep continuing what you’ve been doing’ and keep trusting the stuff that you have because that’s what got you in this position and that’s why we are in this position.
“I think the best thing you could pass along to somebody is enjoy the moment. Make sure you breathe out there, slow everything down, and just trust your stuff and don’t try to be anybody else. Just believe in what got you to this position.”
photo credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports