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04/12/12 5:32 PM ET

Wainwright completing amazing journey back

Ace, to pitch home opener, learns a lot about himself during idle '11

ST. LOUIS -- Nearly 14 months removed from surgery and well past the point of concern about how Adam Wainwright's elbow would respond, there is still something holding him back.

The reminder comes in the form of a seemingly innocuous question, one Wainwright heard at Spring Training and one that the 6-foot-7 Cardinals right-hander knows he will encounter again. If only everyone else knew how much it stings.

Wainwright calls it the toughest part of this whole process -- harder to deal with than the initial diagnosis and subsequent rehab, worse than watching his teammates make their improbable run to and through the postseason.

"It is when people walk up to me now and say, 'Hey, will you sign this ball from 2006, because I know you weren't there last year,'" Wainwright said. "Every time somebody says that, it's a realization that I didn't get to play. I was still there and was a part of everything. But I didn't get to play.

"That," he added, "is the low point."

Wainwright calls himself a 2011 World Series champion, and those in the clubhouse unanimously agree. It's why they awarded him a full postseason share even though Wainwright didn't make so much as a Spring Training start. It's also why he'll be as much a part of this weekend's championship ceremonies as anyone else on the postseason roster. No asterisk attached.

"I know I wasn't out on the field battling and competing with those guys to make it happen, but I also know that I have an important role on this team," Wainwright said. "I was there every day for that team, and I never stopped believing in them all year."

Wainwright will be the first to throw a pitch in Busch Stadium in 2012, a distinction that manager Mike Matheny ensured the right-hander would get months ago by mapping out his spring progression with the date in mind.

It won't be the first time Wainwright has started a home opener. But given the events of 2011 -- both on a personal and team level -- it's arguably the most meaningful.

"It's a tremendous honor," Wainwright said. "It's a special time in St. Louis. Driving to the field that day, I'd compare it to a huge college football game where everybody is out tailgating. It's really awesome."

This won't be Wainwright's first start of the season. That came back in Milwaukee on Saturday. Wainwright exited trailing 3-0 with two out in the sixth, though there was no rustiness to suggest that more than 18 months had passed since Wainwright's last regular-season start.

Wainwright hasn't made a start at Busch Stadium since Sept. 19, 2010, a day in which he collected his 19th win of the season. Number 20 came five days later in Chicago.

What followed was a time that Wainwright describes as both trying and peaceful, words not typically used to describe the same event.

There was the tearing of tissue he felt in his elbow as he threw the 33rd pitch of a scheduled 35-pitch live batting practice session on Feb. 21, 2011. Though Wainwright didn't immediately alert anyone of the discomfort, he knew exactly what had happened to his arm.

That was confirmed when, by the time Wainwright finished driving to his Spring Training home, he could no longer extend his arm. It was worse when he woke up from an afternoon nap.

Wainwright placed a call to the Cardinals' training staff and his biggest concerns were shortly thereafter confirmed. There would be no 2011 season for St. Louis' co-ace.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Wainwright dismissed any notion that it was difficult to play spectator last year. In fact, he said, it wasn't hard at all.

"I try to have a good positive attitude in everything I do," Wainwright said. "I was granted a great sense of peace early on from the Lord, and I carried that on through the rest of the season. It's harder now that I wasn't a part of it than it was when I was going through it."

It helped, too, that he found ways to stay active and involved.

Rather than returning to Florida for his rehab work, Wainwright remained in St. Louis. He contributed in team meetings and was, by all accounts, the head cheerleader in the dugout.

When the team was on the road, Wainwright watched baseball games -- not just Cardinals ones -- to stay sharp. He thought through pitch selection and dissected at-bats, knowing that both would benefit him when he returned this season. He especially honed in on the hitters who have given him trouble throughout his career.

"It was," as Wainwright put it, "a good way to stay mentally locked in when I knew I couldn't go."

Wainwright discovered serenity in gardening and found peace through his faith. He traversed through a period of self-discovery, too. There, he received affirmation of his identify, an identity that, he insists, does not weigh baseball higher than all else.

And, for the first time in a while, Wainwright found himself falling in love all over again.

"One thing I learned last year is that I really love the game of baseball," Wainwright said. "I think that when you start to do something for an extended period of time, you start to take for granted how great it is. You get it taken away and you realize just how amazing it is to play a game that I have loved since I was a kid and get paid for that. That's special. I am really blessed to be in this position, and I've learned to stay amazed by that and not take that for granted."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.