Sidelined since June 7 with a right middle finger sprain, Wainwright returned with a splash in all areas as the Cardinals routed the Braves, 18-3, on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Wainwright worked six strong innings on just 72 pitches, limiting Atlanta to five hits. But that wasn't the extent of his good night's work. Wainwright was 3-for-5 at the plate, joining prominently in a Cardinals offensive barrage that yielded 26 hits, the most since the Cards also had 26 on Sept. 23, 1930, at Philadelphia.
Seeing Wainwright back in action seemed to lift the entire Cardinals squad. It still is undetermined whether Wainwright might move to the closer role if Chris Carpenter returns from his bout with right shoulder soreness. But with Carpenter sidelined, it certainly was a comforting sight for Cardinals fans when Wainwright took the mound for his first appearance in more than two months.
"It's something I can build on, for sure," Wainwright said. "I'm very happy to be back."
Working against his former team on the night of his long-awaited return, Wainwright admitted his adrenaline was "going crazy" before the game. He managed to calm himself and threw an economical amount of pitches while the Cardinals were piling up hits and runs.
The Cardinals (72-58) got all the runs they would need in the second inning while knocking out Braves starter Charlie Morton. Singles by Yadier Molina and Wainwright and a sacrifice bunt by Cesar Izturis set the stage for the early runs. Skip Schumaker's run-scoring single got St. Louis on the board, and Albert Pujols added a two-run double. By the time Morton walked Troy Glaus to force in a run, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox had seen enough.
The Cardinals went on to pummel a cluster of Braves relievers to record their second straight double-digit run output. St. Louis had 21 singles, the most for the club in a nine-inning game since July 6, 1929. Bloopers and bleeders made for an offensive feeding frenzy.
"My team was picking me up huge tonight," Wainwright said. "All the credit goes to them. Anybody could have pitched today."
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa felt Wainwright's return performance was more than anyone rightfully could have expected, given the length of the right-hander's absence.
"To be able to spot the ball the way he did and mix things up, it's hard to believe he could be that sharp with that much time missed," La Russa said.
Wainwright humbly put his career-high three hits in perspective by explaining he had two broken-bat singles and was bailing out at the plate when another ball dropped in for him.
"That was just completely luck," he said.
Wainwright came into the game with the goal of putting hitters away early in the count. He still is building stamina and trying to work toward a starter's normal pitch count. The massive run support helped in that regard, as Wainwright was able to aggressively challenge each hitter. The only run off Wainwright came when pinch-hitter Greg Norton homered in the fifth.
There were offensive stars up and down the lineup for St. Louis. Molina returned after a one-game absence because of a left foot contusion and went 4-for-5 with four RBIs. Pujols, who boosted his average to .353 with a 3-for-3 effort, is closing in on Atlanta's Chipper Jones for the National League batting lead. Jones is at .359 after going 1-for-4. Seven St. Louis position players had multihit games.
"It was one of those nights where whatever we did was going to be right, and whatever they did was going to be wrong," Wainwright said.
The Cardinals have been on the other end of such lopsided scores, and they know it means nothing going to the next game. One day after losing to the Phillies, 20-2, on June 13, the Cardinals won, 3-2.
"It was just nice to get some offense for [Wainwright] and give him a little breathing room," Cardinals right fielder Ryan Ludwick said.
Joel Pineiro got three innings of work and a save. But the night belonged to Wainwright, who could provide a huge boost to the Cardinals' playoff chances if he stays healthy the rest of the way.
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.