DENVER — St. Louis closer Edward Mujica appreciates a feel-good story as much as anyone.
Only, he wasn’t about to let this be Todd Helton’s moment, not against him and especially not with his team in a tight playoff race.
Mujica struck out Helton to end the game with the bases loaded as the Cardinals held off the Colorado Rockies 4-3 on Wednesday night to expand their lead in the NL Central race.
“Unbelievable,” Mujica said, shaking his head.
The cheering crowd thought this just might be another unbelievable memory in a career full of them for Helton, who will retire at the end of the season. Even starting pitcher Adam Wainwright thought things were setting up too perfectly for it to be anything but the stage for Helton’s heroics.
“When we load the bases there, as much faith as I have in Mujica, you hear, `Now coming up to the plate, Todd Helton,’ and you go, `Oh, man,'” Wainwright said. “It’s too perfect. But (Mujica) pitched him perfect. That last pitch, it was like a thing of art.”
In this case, that art was a high fastball.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better moment,” Helton said. “You could’ve asked for a lot better result. You just learn from it and go on.”
Wainwright (17-9) gave up two runs in the first and then found his groove to earn his 17th win, second-most in the NL this season.
He went 3 for 3 with a double and two RBIs to help the Cardinals stretch their lead to two games over Pittsburgh after the Pirates lost 3-2 loss to San Diego. St. Louis also reduced its magic number for clinching a playoff spot to three with 10 games to play.
“We’re playing good ball at the right time,” Wainwright said.
Tyler Chatwood (7-5) allowed four runs in six innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. Chatwood is rounding back into form after missing nearly a month with an inflamed right elbow.
The hard-throwing Wainwright allowed 10 hits and struck out eight before running into a jam with two on and two outs in the eighth. Reliever Trevor Rosenthal got Charlie Blackmon to ground out to end the threat. Mujica pitched his way out of a bases loaded mess in ninth for his 37th save in 40 chances. He set Helton up with a few splitters before throwing the high heat.
“I was betting on Todd right there, to deliver the big hit like he has for years,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. “He made a good pitch there.”
Michael Cuddyer remains the NL batting leader, keeping his average at .331 after going 1 for 3 on Wednesday. Cuddyer left the game shortly after making an inning-ending diving catch in the sixth. The team announced he was day-to-day with a bruised right forearm.
St. Louis solved Chatwood in the third, stringing together four straight hits to tie the game at 2. Wainwright had an RBI double and Matt Carpenter followed with a run-scoring single. Carpenter now has 67 RBIs from the leadoff spot, the most by a Cardinals player since Lou Brock had 76 in 1967.
The Cardinals took the lead for good in the fourth when Yadier Molina led off the inning with a double and was brought home by Wainwright’s single. He now has five RBIs this season.
“I always brag that the starting pitchers are the best athletes on the field,” Wainwright said. “Usually, we don’t back that talk up. Tonight, it was a good opportunity to back that up.”
The Rockies began the game with four straight hits off Wainwright, including a two-run single by Troy Tulowitzki. That was certainly more offense than the Rockies had off Wainwright in May, when the Cardinals ace took a no-hitter into the eighth and finished with a two-hitter during a 3-0 victory.
Wainwright escaped more trouble in the first by getting Helton to hit into a 3-6-1 double play. Jordan Pacheco followed by lining out to Matt Adams to end the inning.
This is Helton’s last hurrah after announcing he was calling it a career after 17 years. Weiss said he plans to start Helton in each of the remaining nine games.
“I’m going to play him as much as he’s physically able to do it,” Weiss said. “Give the fans an opportunity to see him.”
Notes: Cardinals RHP Joe Kelly (right calf tightness) hopes to be ready for his next start. … Adams left the game in the seventh with right elbow soreness. … Rockies OF Carlos Gonzalez is visiting a hand specialist in Cleveland about his sprained right middle finger.