ST. LOUIS — When the best start of his career was complete, as his teammates rushed around to celebrate yet another October moment, Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright wrapped up Yadier Molina in an embrace that neither is likely to forget.
“It was hard to contain myself,” Wainwright said after his complete-game gem. “I was teared up big-time. I had a death grip on my catcher and I wasn’t letting him go. There was nobody else I wanted to share that moment with right there than Yadi Molina.”
The Cardinals’ 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Wednesday night’s win-or-be-done fifth game of the National League Division Series was full of big moments, most of them provided by St. Louis’ 32-year-old ace.
None was any cooler than the one in the top of the ninth, when Wainwright made the fastest sprint of his career from the dugout to the mound. The sold-out Busch Stadium crowd responded with a roar that left Wainwright with “chill bumps from my head to my toes.”
Manager Mike Matheny felt it, too.
“That made my hair stand up,” said Matheny, who was planning to give Wainwright a chance to finish what he started even if Matt Adams had not put the game away with a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth.
“He was going out no matter what,” Matheny said. “That’s the way it should finish, with him on the mound.”
Not everyone was so certain Matheny would not turn to the bullpen. Wainwright’s older brother, Trey, was watching the game with Adam’s wife, Jenny, and she asked after her husband had cruised through the eighth.
Trey’s reply: “Well, I know this: Adam is probably walking over to Mike and saying you can have the ball from my cold, dead hands.”
Wainwright, 4-0 with four saves and a 2.03 ERA in the playoffs, certainly deserved the chance for his first postseason complete game.
Through eight innings, the 6-foot-7 right-hander had allowed the Pirates more than one base runner in an inning only once, in the seventh, on three infield singles that all could have been — should have been — outs. The last of the grounders hit first base, bounced over Adams and brought home Pittsburgh’s only score. “Freaky” was the word the Cardinals used to describe the inning.
Other than the seventh, Wainwright dominated the Pirates with a fastball regularly reaching 95 mph and a curve that his catcher called “amazing.” “I was calling it more than usual because it was breaking so good,” Molina said.
All six of Wainwright’s strikeouts ended with a curveball, including the final out of the game when slugger Pedro Alvarez swung and missed at three in a row. After Wainwright baffled the Pirates in a 9-1 Game 1 victory, their hitters talked about staying off the curve and making him beat them with his fastball.
“I kept hearing they weren’t going to swing at any curveballs,” Wainwright said. “That’s OK. I can throw them for strikes. I know if I get them in my counts, eventually they’re going to have to start swinging and be aggressive.”
To get out of trouble in the seventh, Wainwright went away from the curve and leaned on his cutter. Two were out, two were on and Russell Martin was coming up when Molina and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist paid Wainwright a visit on the mound.
“I told them let’s get a good cutter down and away and he’s going to ground out to short,” Wainwright said. “I knew (Martin) was going to be aggressive early.”
Sure enough, Martin rolled the first pitch to shortstop Pete Kozma for an inning-ending forceout.
As Wainwright relived the moment, he stood in a champagne-soaked clubhouse surrounded by reporters. As he talked, Chris Carpenter walked up and poured a full bottle of Budweiser over the head of his longtime teammate and close friend.
“I don’t waste a lot of beers,” Carpenter said. “But he deserves it.”
Though injury prevented Carpenter from pitching this season, his presence has made him as valuable as most anyone on the St. Louis roster. The young pitchers try to emulate him; Wainwright seeks to ascend to the level reached by Carpenter in past postseasons.
“I’m trying to live up to the standard he put out to be that Cardinal leader,” Wainwright said. “That’s the guy I’ve always wanted to be, watching Carp. I knew someday it was going to be my shoes to step up and fulfill that.”
Finished with his interviews, Wainwright walked over to brother Trey and gave him a big hug. That moment had arrived. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.