Wainwright finds early-season form as Cards’ surge continues

Adam Wainwright needed just 100 pitches to work a complete game for his 17th win and lead the surging Cardinals to a 9-1 victory over the reeling Brewers.

Benny Sieu/Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE — Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright was sporting a Peyton Manning jersey as he made his way around the visiting team’s clubhouse at Miller Park on Sunday morning.

"He’s the No. 1 pick on my fantasy team," Wainwright said.

If Manning plays fantasy baseball, he could do much worse than returning the favor. Wainwright certainly pitched like a top pick Sunday afternoon.

Emerging from a second-half funk in a big way, Wainwright needed just 100 pitches to work a complete game for his 17th win and lead the surging Cardinals to a 9-1 victory over the reeling Brewers.

Wainwright gave up his only run in the ninth inning when Scooter Gennett hit a leadoff double and Carlos Gomez, pinch-hitting for Ryan Braun, lined a run-scoring single to right. After a one-out walk, Wainwright was visited by manager Mike Matheny and told he was on a short leash. But two pitches later, Wainwright finished his fourth complete game of the season by getting Gerardo Parra to hit into a game-ending double play.

"Today was a big win for our team and (for me) a realization of all the little steps I’ve been taking over the past few weeks," said Wainwright, who posted an uncharacteristic 5.17 ERA in six August starts. "I knew it was a matter of time. I’ve been feeling better and did some good work in the bullpen. I felt very confident going into today."

He had an even better sense that he was about to find his early-season form when he was warming up.

"My first three or four pitches just playing catch before I started throwing the ball with authority (in pregame), I could tell I was going to have a better fastball, better finish on things," Wainwright said. "Even (Derek) Lilliquist, our pitching coach, said, ‘I could tell after the first few throws you were going to have a good day.’"

So what was the difference between today and August?

"Most of my pitches today had better finish," Wainwright said. "That’s exactly what I expect going forward."

His success started with improved fastball command, which Matheny noted might have had something to do with umpiring in recent starts. Because Wainwright relies so heavily on command, when his close pitches on the corners aren’t called strikes, he is more likely to scuffle. The command on his cutter, sinker and breaking pitches all were on against Milwaukee.

"He was more aggressive with everything," catcher Yadier Molina said. "He hit the spots pretty good, getting ahead in the count."

Added Matheny: "We needed our ace to step up and give us a big game. That’s exactly what he did. The last two games when he came out, he said, ‘I’m so close.’ (Sunday) I did see a little more life. The fastball had some pop. He was just locating. That’s his game and he was doing it with everything he had."

The win continued what has been the strongest stretch of the season for the Cardinals. Since a four-game losing streak that was lowlighted by an ugly loss to the Cubs in the first game of a doubleheader last Saturday, the Cardinals have won eight of nine and gone from one game behind in the NL Central to 4 1/2 games ahead of the Pirates and a full five in front of the bumbling Brewers.

"It happens fast, there’s no question about it," Wainwright said. "We knew if we stayed positive and went out every day with urgency, we would eventually click. We’re in a good spot now. We just have to continue to play every day like it’s our last."

Even Matheny, the master of the "one game at a time" mantra, was impressed by what the Cardinals accomplished in Milwaukee.

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"To come in here and take three of four from a very good team, you can’t deny at this time of year that was a big deal for our club," he said.

Just as big was seeing Wainwright again pitching like a No. 1 pick.

3 UP

— Jhonny Peralta. With a ninth-inning, two-run blast into the left-field seats, Peralta became the first Cardinals player to reach 20 homers this season. He earlier recorded the 1,500th hit of his 12-year career with a broken-bat single to left field in the fourth inning. Peralta was hitting out of the three-hole usually occupied by Matt Holliday for only the fourth time this season.

"That’s a lot of hits," said Peralta, who added he was not aware of reaching the milestone until he was informed after the hit. "I don’t know how those guys can (get to) 3,000."

— Peter Bourjos. With a two-run triple in the fourth and a seventh-inning single, Bourjos racked up his fourth multi-hit game in the past week. A 9-for-19 showing since the start of the month has his batting average up to a season-best .248. The triple was his fifth of the season and tied Matt Adams for the team lead.

— The bottom half of the order. Oscar Taveras had three more hits and Kolten Wong added two which, combined with Bourjos’ performance, gave the Cardinals a bunch of production out of the sixth, seventh and eighth holes. Besides seven hits, the trio also accounted for three RBI and scored four runs.

3 DOWN

— Matt Holliday. A tight back kept him out of the lineup and also might explain why he had gone hitless in four of his past five games, following a 14-game stretch when he hit .345/.429/.655. Holliday has been dealing with back issues on and off all season, though this isn’t expected to sideline him for long. Matheny said Holliday woke up the other day with the tightness but played through it until after batting in the eighth inning Saturday night. "We noticed some of his swings didn’t look quite right and at that point, we got him out," Matheny said.

— A.J. Pierzynski’s durability streak. Those 40 games that Yadier Molina missed have left him fresh for the stretch, which does not bode well for Pierzynski’s chances of extending his record streak of being the only player in MLB history to catch in 110 games for 13 consecutive seasons. With only 85 games behind the plate this season, there’s little chance Pierzynski will reach triple digits in games caught as long as Molina stays healthy.

— Brewers’ playoff chances. A week ago, they resided in first place just as they had for the previous 148 days. Now, they’re not only five games behind the Cardinals, but they also trail the Pirates by half a game in the race for the second wild card. Their sloppy play in this game was nothing short of embarrassing. For example, after a routine out to center field, Parra’s throw back to the infield was missed by two players and rolled right behind reliever Alfredo Figaro, allowing Peralta to advance from first to second.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.