Wainwright's long road back leads to doorstep of Series
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LOUIS -- If Game 4 of the National League Championship Series was going to get away from Adam Wainwright, it was going to happen in the top of the sixth inning. His Cardinals had just extended their lead to three runs, but Wainwright was about to make his third pass through the Giants' batting order, and he was approaching 80 pitches in his 35th start of the season, matching the career high he set in 2009, back before elbow surgery.
With one out, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro hit successive singles to bring Buster Posey to the plate, representing the tying run.
"[Catcher Yadier Molina] looks out at me and says, 'This is your game,'" Wainwright said. "I just felt so much confidence run through my veins right there. It was the perfect time for that. After that, I knew I was going to get him out."
Wainwright did retire Posey, on a flyout to right field.
Up next was Pablo Sandoval. Wainwright worked into a 1-2 count with a trio of fastballs, then dropped a nasty curve. Sandoval beat it into the ground toward second baseman Daniel Descalso, who had an easy play.
Inning over. Game over.
Adam Wainwright's first career postseason win as a starter was among the best NLCS performances by a Cardinals starting pitcher.
"That was a good inning for us to get out of there," Molina said.
The Cards got out of there with an 8-3 victory and a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. They will have one chance to close out the series in front of their home fans in Friday's Game 5, at 7 p.m. CT on FOX.
For Wainwright, who sat out the championship season in 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, a return trip to the World Series would be extra sweet.
"This season has gone so fast to me," Wainwright said. "I just can't believe where we are right now. I don't know. When I missed last year, in the offseason, I was just like, 'Can we please do that again next year?'
"We have a good chance to do that this year. We have to go out and win a few more games, but we're putting ourselves in a good position, and I'm so excited for that, to be back and contributing."
After his escape in the sixth, Wainwright worked one more inning, a 13-pitch, 1-2-3 seventh, and he exited having allowed one run on four hits, burned only by Hunter Pence's two-out homer in the second inning. Wainwright did not walk a batter and struck out five. He threw 70 of his 96 pitches for strikes.
It scored a 70 on Bill James' "game score" calculator, second best by a Cardinals starter this postseason, behind Kyle Lohse's seven-inning, two-hit gem against the Nationals in Game 4 of the NL Division Series. Lohse scored 73.
Better yet, it was a big bounceback from Wainwright's uncharacteristically awful start in Game 5 of that series, in which he recorded only seven outs, surrendered three home runs and slipped into a six-run hole.
"A little part of me wanted to reprove it to myself that I could go out there and pitch great when we need me to," Wainwright said. "I knew I could. I was very confident in my ability and my stuff. I just needed to trust it and go out there and make pitches, and tonight I was able to execute."
Said Pence: "I actually think Wainwright today was as good as you're going to see. He was spot on with his location. Obviously, you can hit it, but you also have to find a hole."
Wainwright was rewarded with his second postseason victory and his first as a starter -- he won Game 4 of the 2006 World Series in relief after a blown save.
That last nugget surprised him.
"I feel like I've got a lot more than that, for some reason, but I don't," Wainwright said. "I realize that I've won as a reliever, but it feels like I've been placed in postseason moments a lot."
If Wainwright starts again in this postseason, it will be against the Tigers in the World Series, and it would be his 36th meaningful start of the calendar year, a new career standard.
That is an extremely heavy workload for a pitcher who missed all of 2011, though Wainwright has said in recent days that he has felt stronger, not weaker, as the season has progressed. He chalks it up to the arduous rehab process he was already beginning when the Cards made their run to the 2011 World Series, and to his sensational curveball, which Wainwright referred to on Thursday as his "year-saver."
Wainwright showed no signs of slowing on Thursday.
"I don't think any of us were surprised," manager Mike Matheny said. "He was barely getting off the mound in Washington, telling everybody to pick him up and keep us right there. He wanted another chance to pitch, and I think we all knew we'd see something pretty special if he did get that opportunity."