Wainwright steamrolled the Padres on a gloomy Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium, pitching eight strong innings in a 4-1 Cardinals win. He equaled a personal best with his 19th win of the season, tying Roy Halladay and Ubaldo Jimenez for the National League lead and moving one victory away from a number that has stood as a career-defining mark for pitchers for decades.
The pitching win has, deservedly, lost a great deal of its meaning as an analytical tool in recent years. Within the clubhouse, however, it still carries much of the same clout it always has. And among big leaguers, 20 is special.
"There are certain things that have a lot of meaning," said manager Tony La Russa. "Hitting .300 or 100 RBIs. For a pitcher, 20 wins, it's a special category."
Wainwright has at least two more chances to get his 20th, and La Russa hinted that he might find a way for the right-hander to get a third shot as well. It's conceivable that Wainwright could take his regular turn twice and then pitch on three days' rest on the final day of the regular season.
"It's obviously a good milestone to hit as a pitcher," Wainwright said. "But right now, we're still battling for this division and for the playoffs. Until the last day when we're eliminated, we're going to be battling. We're going to try not to get eliminated so we don't have to think about it. But as far as personal goals, 20 would be cool. I have two starts to win them, [so] 21 would be better."
If he pitches the next two games like he did on Sunday, though, getting to 20 won't be an issue.
Wainwright took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning before Will Venable broke it up with a single to right field, finishing with one run on five hits over eight innings. He found himself in jams in three innings, but for the most part, he wriggled out of them.
"My focus was the best it's been in a long time today," Wainwright said. "I was moving in and out, changing speeds. Pags [rookie catcher Matt Pagnozzi] did a great job behind the plate today. I rededicated myself to being mentally focused today."
Wainwright walked the bases loaded in the fourth before striking out Chase Headley to end the threat, and faced runners on first and second with one out in the sixth. It wasn't until the eighth that the Padres finally scored on Wainwright, stringing three singles together before Ryan Ludwick popped up for the third out. The right-hander lowered his ERA to 2.45. He allowed three walks, striking out seven.
"Waino was on," Pagnozzi said. "Evidently."
Wainwright got all the offensive support he needed in the first inning. Matt Holliday singled home the first run after Jon Jay walked and Albert Pujols singled. Following a walk to Colby Rasmus, Pedro Feliz made it 2-0 with a sacrifice fly.
Brendan Ryan added a sacrifice fly in the fourth, and Rasmus hit his 23rd home run of the season, a solo shot, in the sixth. It marked only the second time in 11 starts that Padres hurler Jon Garland was reached for more than three runs in a game. Garland was still good, but he needed to be better with Wainwright on his game.
"[Wainwright] has been one of the best pitchers in the National League, and it showed today," said San Diego manager Bud Black. "We stressed him a few times but just couldn't come up with the big knock. Jon hung in there, but against Wainwright, you've got to be stingy."
St. Louis pulled back within six games of Cincinnati in the NL Central, five in the loss column, with 14 to play after the Reds lost in Houston. The Reds' magic number for clinching a division title still stands at eight. The Cardinals are in fourth place in the NL Wild Card race, eight games behind the Braves.
The Cardinals improved to 29-22 against the other six teams in contention for playoff spots (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco). Against teams with losing records, they are 44-48.
A paid crowd of 37,885 fans put the Cardinals over the 3 million mark for the seventh consecutive season and the 14th time in franchise history. St. Louis has seven home games remaining.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.