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Cards ready to follow Wainwright to NLCS in Game 5

In decisive contest, ace to take Busch Stadium mound after pitching Game 1 gem

ST. LOUIS -- That the Cardinals are coming back to St. Louis after forcing a Game 5 is an indisputable coup. That they get another chance to give Adam Wainwright the ball is certainly an added bonus.

Their ace will have another chance to replicate his fine performance from Game 1 at Busch Stadium on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT on TBS and send the Cards to the NL Championship Series. In the NLDS opener last week, Wainwright beat Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett, scattering just three hits and one run over seven innings while striking out nine. Wednesday, he'll oppose rookie Gerrit Cole.

"We're always excited to see Adam Wainwright on the mound," manager Mike Matheny said after the Cardinals' 2-1 win over the Pirates in Game 4 on Monday. "He's the ace of our staff. These guys, they get a lot of energy every time he has the mound."

Wainwright has made five career postseason starts (14 appearances) and four in the NLDS. Also working in his favor: He's 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in three postseason starts (seven appearances) in St. Louis.

"It's the biggest game of the year, isn't it? That's what I always tell these guys," Wainwright said. "Every start of mine is the biggest game of the year. It's a big-time game against a good opponent, and I'm looking forward to doing it."

Tale of the Tape: Game 5
Gerrit Cole
Adam Wainwright
2013 regular season
Overall: 19 GS, 10-7, 3.22 ERA, 28 BB, 100 SO Overall: 34 GS, 19-9, 2.94 ERA, 35 BB, 219 SO
Key stat: Dating back to Aug. 16, Cole has turned in nine consecutive quality starts, including in Game 2 of the NLDS. Key stat: Wainwright has won his last five decisions, including Game 1 of the NLDS, posting a 1.71 ERA (eight earned runs in 42 innings) over that stretch.
At Busch Stadium
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA
2013: 18 GS, 10-6, 2.46 ERA
Career: 129 G, 98 GS, 54-32, 2.65 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA
2013: 4 GS, 2-0, 2.57 ERA
Career: 23 G, 19 GS, 10-4, 4.61 ERA
Loves to face: Matt Holliday, 0-for-3, K
Hates to face: Yadier Molina, 1-for-2, HR
Loves to face: Marlon Byrd, 4-for-20, 9 K
Hates to face: Andrew McCutchen, 13-for-31, 4 2B, 3B, HR
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Making his first career postseason start, Cole tossed six stellar innings against the Cardinals in Game 2 at Busch Stadium, allowing one run on two hits, walking one and striking out five. Why he'll win: Wainwright was overpowering in Game 1, tossing seven dominant frames in which he allowed one run on three hits, walking none and striking out nine, improving his career playoff record to 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA.
Pitcher beware: Opposing batters hit .347 against Cole over his first 25 pitches of a game during the regular season. Pitcher beware: Wainwright had a 6.09 ERA (23 earned runs in 34 innings) in the first inning during the regular season.
Bottom line: Cole has to make sure he's not overly amped for a decisive Game 5, especially coming off his Game 2 performance. He needs to be as cool under pressure as he was then, and then some. Bottom line: The key for Wainwright will be to repeat his performance from Game 1, as if Games 2-4 never happened. It's one game for the right to advance to the NLCS, and Wainwright can rely on his big-game experience to put the Cards over the top.

The righty is the franchise's all-time NLDS strikeout leader, with 37, and he is tied for 15th on baseball's all-time list with Barry Zito, Mike Hampton and Tim Hudson.

And though the Cards lost Game 3 on Sunday at PNC Park, they're likely thrilled to have made their way to the winner-take-all game without using their ace prematurely. Matheny said there was a chance Wainwright would have started Game 4 on Monday if starter Michael Wacha had been needed out of the bullpen on Sunday.

"If things would have gone crazy last night, we had Michael ready to potentially come in late," Matheny said before Monday's game. "That would have changed gears, and we would have pitched Adam today."

Matheny said in order for Wacha to pitch on Sunday, the Cardinals would have had to use Shelby Miller early in the game and then need significant innings late in the game. Wacha, 22, split his big league service time this year between the rotation and the bullpen, but his last six outings have been starts. The Redbirds never needed Miller on Sunday, and Wacha was superb on Monday, leaving Wainwright with the opportunity to take the ball for Game 5.

"Most of the credit needs to go to Michael Wacha," Wainwright said after Monday's win. "He was amazing today, kept us in the game. Their starting pitcher, [Charlie Morton], did an amazing job, too. We found a way to win a tough game in a very tough atmosphere."

And Wacha is just as pleased to hand the ball back to Wainwright.

"It's unbelievable," Wacha said of the team's confidence in Wainwright on Wednesday. "You saw what he did in Game 1. He's just a great pitcher. He's mentally tough as well. [He's] not just a great pitcher, but a great guy. And he understands the ballgame. It's going to be a lot of fun watching him pitch out there."

This opportunity allows Wainwright the chance to make amends for the last Game 5 he started -- his only poor postseason start. In the decisive game of last year's NLDS in Washington, Wainwright was hammered for six runs on seven hits, including three homers, in just 2 1/3 innings. The Cardinals stormed back for a memorable 9-7 win over the Nationals, and Wainwright's next start in the NLCS turned out to be a gem (one run on four hits in seven innings) in an 8-3 win over the Giants in Game 4.

But it highlights a disconcerting stat for Wainwright and the Cards, who have seen the righty struggle in four instances since 2010 that he faced the same team in consecutive starts. In the first of those starts, he allowed four earned runs in 21 innings, but that jumped to 14 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings the second time around.

"I learned some valuable lessons last year," Wainwright said of his 2012 playoff run. "I persevered through some hard times, and the fact of the matter is last year I pitched a good Game 1, terrible Game 5 and a good Game 4 of the NLCS, but there's no guarantee my stuff would have returned in the World Series had we even got there. That's just the truth of the matter. My stuff was hit or miss all year long. I would have been prepared, I would have been focused, but my stuff may not have been there. This year, I have all the confidence in the world in my stuff. I will be prepared. I will be confident going into the game."

And with Chris Carpenter out for the season, Wainwright is ready and able to take on the role as the team's undisputed ace Wednesday.

"I felt like I've been that guy for a long time now, not necessarily from the outward looking in, but internally that's what drove me is to get to that Carp-type level," Wainwright said. "I learned how to be a professional from him and what it takes on a daily grind basis to show up and be ready to play day in and day out. … Hopefully these guys see that. When it was Carp, you didn't even have to try and see that, because he was dripping sweat off his hat and running through four different shirts when he showed up to the field. Hopefully I'm that light that these guys can see, that they see something that makes it work."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright