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Cards very aware of Wainwright's value

Cards aware of Wainwright's value

ST. LOUIS -- They have a reputation as a potent offensive force, thanks to some midseason acquisitions and having baseball's best player hitting in the No. 3 spot in their order. But the heart of the 2009 Cardinals is their starting rotation, with two Cy Young candidates anchoring a starting five that has been one of the best in the game.

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The Redbirds' last two wins have come by 3-2 and 2-1 scores, and that's how they've done it for a large portion of this year. The downside of playing like that is that sometimes you pitch well, defend well, and lose. Adam Wainwright learned that once again in his last start, when he allowed two runs to the Marlins and still took the loss.

But that doesn't change the fact that Wainwright has been arguably the most valuable Cardinal short of Albert Pujols in 2009. He's taken the ball every five days without a hiccup, consistently gone deep into games and consistently pitched well. And the Cardinals are thrilled to send him to the mound in a very big game on Sunday.

St. Louis has a chance to finish off a sweep of the rival Cubs and knock its magic number down to two with a win on Sunday night on ESPN. And the Cards will start Wainwright against Cubs star Carlos Zambrano in a matchup of two elite pitchers and ferocious competitors. It should be a lot of fun.

"I think both clubs lined it up to where the matchups [in the weekend's series] were outstanding," manager Tony La Russa said. "It was not going to be a good weekend for the hitters. And it won't be a good night [for them] tomorrow night with Zambrano and Wainwright."

Wainwright will be looking to get back in the win column for both himself and the team after taking a hard-luck loss five days ago. But he had few complaints about his last outing, in which he allowed two runs over seven innings.

"That's your job as a starter, to go into the late innings and hold the opposition to as few runs as possible," he said. "If you're doing that, you're doing all right."

He's doing all right in general. He's certainly impressed his newest teammate, who also happens to have been his childhood idol. John Smoltz lockers next to Wainwright and likes what he sees in the fourth-year right-hander.

"He's gotten pretty established in a short period of time," said Smoltz, who knew Wainwright when Wainwright was a prospect in the Braves organization. "He's carried himself with every bit of fun and professionalism. He's having, as he should, having a great time."

Matthew Leach 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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