JUPITER, Fla. — Adam Wainwright's season-ending elbow injury last February was supposed to have wrecked the St. Louis Cardinals' season.
Instead, they went on to take the World Series. And now the former 20-game winner is healthy again, ready to rejoin a rotation that was strong enough to win it all without him.
That's a major reason spring training opens with optimism for a team that lost three of its pillars — slugger Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan — since the World Series victory parade.
Even if the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Wainwright throws fewer than 200 innings, the estimate the Cardinals have used in their attempt to play it safe with a pitcher not yet a year removed from elbow reconstruction, they view it as a major plus.
At the team's Winter Warmup last month, outfielder Matt Holliday said that getting Wainwright back was like signing a big-ticket free agent that would help compensate for Pujols' departure.
After the first official throwing session Sunday at what he estimated as 85 percent effort, Wainwright said he had no worries that he'll be all the way back by opening day.
The lost 2011 season, he said, was merely a "speed bump" in his career. There were no flashbacks to last spring when he blew out his right elbow. Instead, the word he used was "comfortable."
"I get home at night, I'm not thinking about icing (my arm) or anything like that," Wainwright said. "I'm wondering what time 'American Idol' comes on. That's all."
Catcher Yadier Molina was on the receiving end, and gave the pitcher a big hug afterwards to note the symbolic nature of an outing that lasted 30 to 35 pitches.
"I was waiting for that moment since last year and finally today I was able to catch him," Molina said. "I was so happy for him, to see him throw and to see him happy, too."
Molina's not the only one. New manager Mike Matheny said Wainwright has looked "fantastic," and general manager John Mozeliak said the pitcher's rehab thus far has been "flawless."
The 30-year-old Wainwright was one of the teams' twin aces along with Chris Carpenter before getting hurt last spring training. He was second in the NL Cy Young Award balloting in 2010 after going 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA, and in 2009 he was 19-8 with a 2.63 ERA and third in the Cy Young.
In 2009, he pitched at least six innings in 26 consecutive starts. In 2010, he had five complete games. Wainwright believes he's ready to be that horse again and wants to be treated like everybody else.
Putting any limitations on the upcoming season, Wainwright emphasized, does nobody any good. His plan is to make it difficult for the Cardinals to "yank me out of the game."
"What happens if I throw 185-190 innings going into September? I can't pitch the rest of the season?" Wainwright said.
Wainwright was among four starters — all except Kyle Lohse — to throw on the first workout for pitchers and catchers. No doubt he faced the most scrutiny. Mozeliak said Sunday that Wainwright's outings will be closely monitored and adjusted if necessary.
The pitcher has been throwing every third day since mid-January, including three times to hitters, and said there's been no pronounced soreness the next day. In short, that's how he felt prior to the injury.
"I don't feel like I missed a year, I really don't," Wainwright said. "The games haven't happened yet, so I'm going to slow-play that a little bit, but I feel like I'm stepping into something that I'm real comfortable with."
Wainwright played a major role on the Cardinals' 2006 title team as the fill-in closer for injured Jason Isringhausen, getting the final out in both the NL championship series and World Series. He was reduced to cheerleader during the team's October 2011 surprise as the Cardinals upset the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers.
"It gives me an appreciation for how much I love this game," Wainwright said. "Spring training is fun. It's a great time, it really is. Good weather, good place to be, good team to be on, family time at night, baseball in the morning.
"I mean, it doesn't get a whole lot better than that."
Matheny shared that feeling. Prior to camp, he said the offseason had gone so slowly that he felt like a kid whose parents put out Christmas presents in October that couldn't be opened for a couple months.
In his first pre-camp speech, he urged players to aim for career years.
"Up to this point it's just been a lot of talk," Matheny said. "It's time to go get busy."