CHICAGO -- If that was indeed the final moment, the final pitch of Adam Wainwright's career as a Cardinal, it was summed up with symmetry. A right-hander who boasted one of the best curveballs of his generation, and threw one of the biggest in franchise history, ended his five-inning start
CHICAGO -- If that was indeed the final moment, the final pitch of Adam Wainwright's career as a Cardinal, it was summed up with symmetry. A right-hander who boasted one of the best curveballs of his generation, and threw one of the biggest in franchise history, ended his five-inning start at Wrigley Field with one more.
Fittingly, Javier Baez swung and missed.
But Friday afternoon offered no other crisp endings for the Cardinals, who hit a snag in their attempt to recover from a series sweep by the Brewers. With a sloppy series opener at Wrigley Field leading to an 8-4 defeat, the Cards' postseason chances continued to dwindle.
With their fourth straight loss, the Cardinals, who controlled their own postseason destiny when the week started, dropped two games back of the Dodgers in the National League Wild Card race with two games remaining. Any Cardinals loss or Dodgers win over the next two days would eliminate St. Louis from contention.
Should the Cardinals win twice and the Dodgers lose twice, they would play a one-game tiebreaker on Monday at Busch Stadium. The winner of that game would travel to face the NL Central runner-up in the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
"Clearly, the back is completely against the wall," manager Mike Shildt after the Cardinals fell to 11-14 in September. "So we have to win the next two. It's been go time, and it's even more so now."
The Cubs are still trying to hold off the Brewers to secure the NL Central crown.
"It's a must-win for us," Wainwright said. "We're in a situation where we have to have some help, and we've got to win. There's really no other way of getting around it."
Seeking to delay conversations about what's in his future, the 37-year-old Wainwright eagerly took the mound in the team's biggest game this season. Entering Friday, his winning percentage (.846) in 24 career games at Wrigley Field ranked first among all pitchers (minimum 15 starts) in Major League history. That's no longer the case.
The Cubs ambushed Wainwright for a pair of quick runs while making him throw 32 pitches in the first inning.
"The first inning, I came out a little sluggish. I can't explain that," Wainwright said. "I was fired up for the game. They needed more out of me in that first inning to set the tone, and I wish I could start that over and do it again."
Wainwright ended up needing 94 pitches to weave through five frames. Those included 36 curveballs, one of which Kristopher Bryant crushed while Chicago built a 4-0 lead.
Wainwright generated 10 swing-and-misses on that curve, the last of which secured his seventh strikeout of the day. The start, Wainwright's fourth since coming off the disabled list, was possibly his final one before entering free agency. On the heels of two injury-plagued seasons, his return is far from certain.
"It may have been, but it doesn't feel like it, for whatever reason," Wainwright said, when asked if he pondered the possibility of his Cardinals career ending with that curve. "I haven't had those emotions. … It would be kind of hard to walk away knowing how I'm feeling right now. I've had better stuff these last four games than I've had these last two years."
Wainwright's longtime batterymate didn't sense a finality, either.
"I don't think it's going to be the last time," Yadier Molina said. "I'm pretty sure it's not going to be the last time. I'm confident."
Though St. Louis shaved two runs off Chicago's lead immediately after Wainwright's exit, a series of mistakes held it back from doing more.
The team endured its third game with three or more errors in the past week, and the bullpen continued to offer costly free passes. Bud Norris walked Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks on five pitches before exiting with a left hamstring injury, and Jordan Hicks later walked home a run.
It all helped the Cubs run up the score with one run in the seventh and three more in the eighth.
"We make no excuses," Shildt said. "The fact of the matter is we made some mistakes, and they've been across the board. It's clearly not for a lack of effort or anything along those lines. It just hasn't been as clean the last couple days."
There was also a collection of missed offensive opportunities. The Cardinals finished 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and they had another baserunner (Harrison Bader) picked off.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
When the Cardinals last visited Wrigley Field, Matt Carpenter had a series for the history books -- hitting six home runs and driving in 10 over four days. Carpenter had several chances to do damage against Hendricks on Friday, but he couldn't muster a hit as he fell to 4-for-42 since Sept. 14. Carpenter flied out with two runners in scoring position and one out in the third. He stranded two more runners to end the seventh.
"The reality is we have a lot of guys in the lineup who can hurt you, but I think it's been pretty clear -- at least to me, recently -- that people are going after him harder in the lineup, matchup-wise," Shildt said. "They're using their best stuff against him. He's clearly not as hot as was, but I think he's in a pretty good place, and I like his at-bats."
Friday marked the 242nd time that Wainwright and Molina have worked as batterymates in one of Wainwright's starts. That's not only the most in franchise history, but it's also the most for any tandem since Tom Glavine and Javy Lopez worked 248 games together from 1994-2002.
HE SAID IT
"Sometimes you get hot, and sometimes you hit those funks at the worst time you can ever hit them. And that's what we're doing right now. We have to turn that around." -- Wainwright
All-Star Miles Mikolas will be pitching to keep the Cards' postseason chances alive when he takes the mound on Saturday in a 12:05 p.m. CT game against the Cubs. Lefty Cole Hamels (4-2, 2.47 ERA) will start for Chicago. With 17 wins this season, Mikolas has more than any first-year Cardinal since Darryl Kile won 19 in 2000.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.