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Lyle Spencer

Wainwright as good as it gets on October stage

Spencer: Wainwright back to thriving in October

Wainwright as good as it gets on October stage play video for Wainwright as good as it gets on October stage
ST. LOUIS -- Of all the elements in the Cardinals' 2011 World Series title run, none was more remarkable in reflection than the drama playing out without input from Adam Wainwright, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Back on the big stage a year later, Wainwright reminded us on Sunday that when October rolls around, he's about as good as it gets.

"I think if you asked any competitor, he'd say he wants the ball in a big game," Wainwright said following a 3-2 loss to the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

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A stroke of fortune -- Tyler Moore's two-run opposite-field single against Marc Rzepczynski in the eighth inning -- decided it after Wainwright had exited with two outs in the sixth.

"I was feeling good, but my fastball command left me towards the end, running up my pitch count higher than I wanted," Wainwright said. "I'd like to have gone deeper in the game."

Wild Card vs. Nationals

The big man stood tall in a dominant performance, calling to mind his 2009 and '10 seasons when he was among the game's elite, winning 19 and 20 games, respectively. Wainwright's 10 strikeouts across 5 2/3 innings were the most by a Cardinals pitcher in postseason play since Bob Gibson, the legend, put away 10 Tigers in Game 4 of the 1968 World Series.

There wasn't much awareness of pitch counts in Gibby's day, and pity the messenger who would have brought out word that he'd just exceeded his limit. Truth is, nobody could have been found to carry a message like that.

Wainwright turned it over to Lance Lynn to get the last out of the sixth, having thrown 100 pitches and walking three while giving up six hits and a run.

"We'll take our chances [with a lead] going into the eighth and ninth every time," Wainwright said. "They capitalized when they needed it, and we didn't."

Wainwright frustrated the Nationals in the second after they'd taken the lead, retiring Jayson Werth to leave the bases loaded. The Nats had a one-out single in the third and leadoff hits in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, but each time, he went to his offspeed stuff for out pitches.

Wainwright, who rises to 6-foot-7, struck out rookie sensation Bryce Harper twice in three at-bats and set down Danny Espinosa all three times he faced him. Only one of the 10 strikeouts came on a fastball, to Espinosa.

Wainwright's curveball was a menace to the Nationals, but there's nothing new in that. Mets fans will never forget the one that froze Carlos Beltran for the final out of a classic Game 7 in the 2006 NL Championship Series at Shea Stadium.

Division Series studs
Cardinals' strikeout leaders in NLDS action
Rank Pitcher Innings K's
1. Matt Morris 37 24
2. Adam Wainwright 17 1/3 23
Chris Carpenter 36 1/3 23
4. Andy Benes 11 2/3 14
5. Darryl Kile 13 11
Woody Williams 13 11
"That's kind of who I am," Wainwright said. "It was a good pitch for me. I wouldn't say the other ones were bad, but I have a good curveball. At times, I overuse it."

Nationals cleanup man Adam LaRoche, who walked leading off the second and scored on Kurt Suzuki's two-out single for a brief lead, described the futility Wainwright's hook can produce.

"When Adam's got his curveball going, he's tough," LaRoche said. "It looks good until it's five feet out in front [of the plate] and the bottom falls out. He was good."

Shortstop Ian Desmond, who had two of the six Washington hits off Wainwright, sounded as if Wainwright threw him a curve by not throwing any.

"I saw a cutter or changeup, but not one curveball," Desmond said. "He's great, an unbelievable pitcher, obviously. We packed a lunch and came in here ready to play."

Wainwright was 14-13 this season with a 3.94 ERA in 32 starts, down from his career numbers of 80-48 with a 3.15 ERA. He said he didn't feel he was all the way back from the surgery until "around mid-May, late May," and that he experienced a few more bad outings than usual.

His reputation within the game is well established as an athlete with the ability to elevate his performance level when the stakes are highest.

In 2006, as a reliever, Wainwright showed immunity to postseason pressure. Everyone remembers his classic strikeout of Beltran -- his teammate now -- but that was just one pitch in a series of near-perfect efforts.

Wainwright worked 9 2/3 scoreless innings in that postseason, striking out 15 against two walks while notching four saves and a World Series win against the Tigers.

Back in the postseason three years later, he made one start in the NLDS against the Dodgers and again was dominant. An Andre Ethier home run was the only blemish in eight innings of three-hit ball. Wainwright struck out seven and walked one, but the Dodgers prevailed with two ninth-inning runs.

"I've always liked loud crowds," Wainwright said. "I always feed off that [energy], whether it's at home or on the road. I try to use the crowd to motivate me."

He turned Shea Stadium stone silent that October night in 2006. Asked if his success in that postseason created a sense of command that has endured in high-stakes games, Wainwright went back much deeper into his past.

"I think it goes back to my childhood," the 31-year-old Georgia native said. "Little League, soccer, high school football -- all those moments, the big moments, I wanted the ball."

He'd like to take it again in this series. It would mean the Cardinals are still alive in Washington, where the scene shifts after Monday's Game 2.

"I missed being part of that last year," Wainwright said. "We came from behind to win [during the championship run] all through the postseason. We'll show up ready to play [Monday]. No doubt."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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