ST. LOUIS -- There were doubts that Adam Wainwright would ever again pitch like he did in Sunday night's 5-0 win over the Dodgers, and he shared them. The Cardinals icon spent four months on the disabled list trying to heal an arm that wasn't cooperating.
"At one point down the line I just thought, well, be a great cheerleader," said Wainwright, who went on the disabled list in April with right elbow inflammation. "Right when I started to think maybe it was over for me, my arm started to recover well, and tonight is the best I've felt since the middle of 2016."
The August magic was spent, and after losing four straight at home and coughing up their lead in National League Wild Card race, the Cardinals looked empty. Ending the homestand on a high note depended on Wainwright, a 13-year veteran who called his start to 2018 "slop." He succeeded, as St. Louis opens a road trip on Monday tied with the Dodgers for the second NL Wild Card spot.
"A lot of my criticism is rightfully so," Wainwright said. "I was injured and I was out there trying to battle, but it's not the same. People were judging me based off what they've seen, and I understand that. But don't judge me now based off where I was at, because that's not where I am now."
Wainwright's six-inning, nine-strikeout line was good, but it was the way he went about it, mixing his pitches and dealing with his elusive curveball. He carved up a Dodgers club that hung 17 runs on the Cardinals 24 hours prior.
"He threw a curveball I thought was going to hit me in the face and it dropped down for a strike. A veteran on the mound," Dodgers pitcher Thomas Stripling said. "He's going to bring his 'A' game and be ready to pitch. Obviously, that's what he did."
Before the right-hander was back to being his vintage self, Wainwright spent seven games of a rehab assignment surprising himself and everyone involved. For a while, all he believed he could contribute was an inning every now and then, but as his arm healed he realized he could return to starting. So he called manager Mike Shildt.
"I think they were getting to a point where they saw I was throwing well in my rehab games and they were going to put me in the bullpen," Wainwright said."I think it caught [Shildt] off guard, and everyone else also, when I told him I think I can do more than two or three innings for you."
Shildt was questioned in the days prior about giving the right-hander a start, and he insisted Wainwright earned the opportunity on merit, preparation and desire, not because of former accolades.
"Clearly there was some significance there, but that's what guys like Adam Wainwright do," Shildt said. "They step up. That's what horses do. That's what aces do, and that's what he did for a long time in this organization."
Wainwright's support turned up early. Marcell Ozuna homered to right leading off the second inning, and the Cardinals extended their lead to 3-0 on back-to-back RBI singles from Jedd Gyorko and Yadier Molina in the fourth.
"Hopefully, I've got a lot cooler and better moments down the stretch, but this is certainly a jumping-off point," Wainwright said. "Hopefully not for just me but for our whole team.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Ozuna set the tone with his home run. The Dodgers scored in the first inning in the first three games of the series, so it was important the Cardinals strike first and freeze the hot Dodgers bats. Ozuna scored two runs with three hits.
HE SAID IT
"Us old guys can still play, can't we? The main thing for me tonight was to do what I did the entire time in my rehab performances. It was all about executing my pitches, mixing well and keeping them off balance." -- Wainwright
Miles Mikolas (15-4, 2.99 ERA) leads the Cardinals into Atlanta for a three-game set against the Braves, who will start right-hander Mike Foltynewicz (11-9, 2.66) in Monday's 6:35 p.m. CT opener.