The righty allowed eight hits and got in several jams on Tuesday night but got out of all of them, holding Los Angeles off the board as the Cardinals combined Wainwright's performance with six runs in the sixth inning to beat the Dodgers for the second straight day, 10-0, at Busch Stadium.
The win moved the Cardinals back ahead of the Chicago Cubs and into first place in the NL Central after the Cubs lost, 11-6, to the Houston Astros earlier in the night.
Wainwright allowed a baserunner in each of the first six innings and put two men on base in four of them. But that's when he seemed to be at his best, bearing down to keep the Dodgers off the board.
"There were a lot of situations where if he doesn't make a great pitch, they could have busted it open," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "To his credit, he made a lot of good pitches in key situations."
Wainwright left nine Dodgers on base in the first six innings before retiring the final six hitters he faced in the seventh and eighth.
"Wainwright has been in big situations," third baseman Mark DeRosa said. "He's been the closer in a World Series run. He's tough. He's been in tight situations where he's had to make key pitches and he continuously does it. He definitely pitches way, way beyond his years."
The starter was also aided by several strong defensive plays, including a double play in the fourth started by a diving stop and throw from his knees by DeRosa.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan also made two highlight-reel plays, one on a spinning play up the middle and then on a backhanded stop and throw from deep in the hole to his right.
"Playing with Brendan Ryan every day, the appreciation for me has skyrocketed," DeRosa said. "This guy can flat-out play defense. I'd be hard-pressed to find a better shortstop defensively in the game right now. The guy shows up every day. He's a high-energy guy. He makes plays. Sometimes it's not just the offense that can energize a club, it's making good plays defensively, and he's done it time and time again since I've been here."
The Dodgers seemed primed to take the lead in the sixth when they put runners at first and third with one out. But Wainwright again buckled down, getting Matt Kemp to fly out to short right before striking out pitcher Chad Billingsley to end the threat and keep the game scoreless.
"That was a big turning point for us," Wainwright said. "We got a little momentum riding in there. When [Billingsley] was throwing the way he was throwing, my main focus was to just keep going and outlast him because I knew with our offense -- we kind of have like the Rams, when they won the Super Bowl, that kind of offense, that quick-strike offense. So I knew if I just settled in there and kept throwing up zeros that eventually, even though he was pitching a great game, I knew our offense would get to him."
And get to him they did. Billingsley headed to the mound for the bottom of the sixth with a one-hitter going, but the Cardinals got him for six runs in the inning. After intentionally walking Matt Holliday to load the bases, Billingsley got burned by a Ryan Ludwick single up the middle that made it 2-0 Cardinals.
"That was probably the biggest at-bat of the game," La Russa said. "That was huge.
"He proved it last year and now he's swinging good, he's very, very tough with men in scoring position. That's why he had the 100-plus RBIs."
Yadier Molina followed with a two-run single to make it 4-0, and after Ryan was walked intentionally with Wainwright on deck, the Cardinals pitcher singled to left to make it 5-0.
Skip Schumaker singled against reliever Claudio Vargas to make it 6-0 before the 11th batter of the inning, DeRosa, struck out to end the inning.
DeRosa then launched his sixth homer in his past eight games in the eighth to make it 10-0 before the Dodgers brought in infielder Mark Loretta to pitch in mopup duty.
Wainwright struck out five and walked one in his eight innings, finishing three outs short of the first shutout of his career. He improved to 12-6 on the season and his ERA dropped to 2.80.
"Every time I take the ball, I consider myself the best pitcher in the league," Wainwright said. "Whether I am or not, I have to have that feeling for me to be as good as I can be.
"If you put up zeros, you're not going to lose."
The Cardinals' offense has averaged 6.4 runs in the five games since newcomers Holliday and Julio Lugo joined the lineup on Friday, and they improved to 3-2 in that span.
"It's still July, but at the same time, I think us coming together as a group, we realize this is probably the team that we are going to finish out the year with," DeRosa said. "There's a lot of talent up and down the lineup. Our pitching staff is strong, our bullpen is strong. So we expect to go out and play well.
"We're having a lot of fun."
B.J. Rains is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.