ST. LOUIS — Adam Wainwright had his best start in nearly two months when he faced the Washington Nationals in his final regular season start. He’s hoping for similar success Sunday.
Wainwright will make just his second postseason appearance since closing out the Cardinals’ World Series title in 2006 six years ago when he starts Game 1 of their National League Division Series at Busch Stadium at 3:07 p.m. ET.
And he couldn’t be more ready for it.
“If you know me,” Wainwright said Saturday, “you know I’m going to go out there prepared to pitch the game of my life.”
Wainwright and the Cardinals face the tough task of slowing baseball’s best team in the regular season. And the Nationals have a pretty good pitcher going themselves in All-Star and 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez.
It figures to be a compelling and competitive series that likely could go the maximum five games should it play out like most expect. Both teams feature high-powered offenses, solid starting pitching and dominant bullpens.
But when it comes to differences, the Cardinals have a rather distinct advantage. The defending World Series champs have plenty of postseason experience, including a 6-3 win over the Atlanta Braves in Friday’s one-game wild card showdown. The Nationals have very little experience in such situations.
“I think playing in big moments year after year gives you an edge,” said Wainwright, who served as the Cardinals’ closer as a rookie when they defeated the Detroit Tigers to win the 2006 title. “I feel like you’ll be more comfortable in those situations when you’re faced with it over and over again.
“And last year’s experience, playing the last month of the season, like every day was your last, and going through that postseason where you’re the underdog every time, which we always are and which we are again, it gives you an edge. It gives you a sense of being comfortable in tight spots. I really do think that.”
Wainwright went 14-13 in the regular season and posted a 3.94 ERA. After missing the entire 2011 season – and their magical playoff run – due to Tommy John surgery, the right-hander made 32 starts and is just 1 1/3 innings shy of 200 for the year.
He showed signs of fatigue down the stretch, posting a 5.51 ERA in his final six starts. Two of those came against the Nationals, including one of his worst starts of the season on Aug. 31 when he allowed six earned runs and nine hits in just 2 2/3 innings in Washington.
But Wainwright’s final start of the season was his best since mid-August, giving up just one earned run and five hits in six solid innings against the Nationals on Sept. 28 at Busch Stadium.
Gonzalez poses an arguably tougher challenge for the Cardinals offense. The left-hander, who should get serious consideration for the Cy Young award, went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA and 207 strikeouts in his first season with the Nationals.
And he’s already beaten Wainwright once this season, on Aug. 31 in Washington when he tossed a five-hit shutout and struck out eight in a 10-0 Nationals win.
“It’s a different scenario,” Gonzalez said of facing the Cardinals again. “It was at home and now we are at their place. Build a little more confidence when you’re at home, but now you know where you’re at. These guys, they are alert and I’m going to have to be alert and going to have to change the game plan a little bit.
“Pretty sure they are not going to go out there with the same mentality. Again, this is a team that knows how to bounce back and can make situations happen when they need to. I think that’s my job, and I have to understand it, is to keep us in the game as much as possible, let our team go out there and score some runs.
“There’s a reason why they have won the World Series before. So just got to go out there and try to compete and do the best you can.”
The Cardinals are making their ninth playoff appearance since 2000, the most in the National League. The Nationals, meanwhile, ended the longest playoff drought in the majors at 32 years when they won the National League East and finished with an MLB-best 98 wins.
Will the Cardinals’ experience pay off? Or will rookie sensation Bryce Harper and the Nationals knock out the defending champs and advance to their first NLCS since 1981 when they were known as the Montreal Expos?