But instead of a Cubs breakthrough, Wainwright squelched two of Chicago's most dangerous hitters with the bases loaded in a tie game. It was the last time the game's outcome would be in any real doubt. Two RBI singles gave the Cardinals the lead in the top of the seventh, and two relievers pitched brilliantly to secure the win as St. Louis beat Chicago, 7-4, at Wrigley Field in the opener of a four-game series.
Kyle McClellan tossed two exemplary innings to quiet what had been a crazy game through six frames, and Ryan Franklin overwhelmed three Cubs in the ninth for his second save in as many tries. The Cubs, who led the league in offense a year ago, were simply stifled from the sixth inning on.
It started with Wainwright, who was staring down some very scary hitters in the sixth.
Aramis Ramirez led off the sixth with a single for Chicago. Mike Fontenot hit a fly ball to left field, and errors by Chris Duncan and Brendan Ryan on the play sent the runners to second and third with no outs. Wainwright struck out Geovany Soto on a wicked slider for the first out, and the Cardinals walked Ryan Theriot intentionally to bring up the pitcher's spot. That meant the imposing Milton Bradley, batting with ducks on the pond and one out.
No problem, even after Wainwright fell behind. On a full count, he threw a curveball that garnered a called third strike, eliminating the first threat. Soriano flied out, and Wainwright was out of the inning. Bradley argued the strike call and was ejected, and he may have had a point -- the ball appeared to be inside. But it didn't matter.
"It's too close to take, man," Wainwright said. "It's right there."
Still, without McClellan and Franklin following his work with their own successes, it wouldn't have mattered. Yadier Molina and Duncan each singled home a run, putting St. Louis ahead, 6-4, at the seventh-inning stretch. McClellan came in to face the 2-3-4 spots in the Chicago order, and he didn't blink. Even after an Albert Pujols error put Kosuke Fukudome on base, McClellan didn't give an inch. He struck out Derrek Lee and Micah Hoffpauir before Ramirez popped up.
A wild and wooly afternoon suddenly had the look of a game the Cardinals controlled.
"After Waino gets out of that huge situation, and then us coming in and putting runs on the board, you know you've got to do everything to keep them from scoring," McClellan said. "If you give up even one, they think they've got a chance to get back in it. If you give up two or more, [it's even worse]. That inning right there, to me, was a really crucial inning. You don't want to give them anything."
McClellan's resurgence, following a subpar spring, has been a key component of the Cardinals' 8-3 start. He's pitched in a variety of roles, recording a save and also pitching in the middle innings. On Thursday he turned in one of his biggest performances yet. He followed his outstanding seventh with a 1-2-3 eighth after Brian Barden's solo homer stretched the lead to three runs.
"That's as effective as he can be," said manager Tony La Russa. "As good as he was last year at any time, that was really quality."
McClellan then handed off to Franklin, who if anything was even better. The right-hander got two strikeouts and a comebacker in a perfect ninth, throwing nine pitches -- eight of them for strikes. Franklin currently appears to be the de facto closer for a Cardinals team that will not declare a main ninth-inning man.
"Here, man, you get the crowd into it, anything can happen," Franklin said. "So you've just got to try to go out there and get ahead of hitters and make your pitches as fast as possible and get out of there."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.