Then, in arguably the most pressure-packed at-bat Wainwright has faced since he was closing games in the 2006 postseason, he turned in a performance entirely reminiscent of that memorable run to glory. Holding a one-run lead and facing the dangerous Jason Giambi, he unleashed a first-pitch curveball, a sinker, a 1-1 curveball and finally a finishing curve. It was the biggest out of the game, preserving a tenuous lead and allowing the Cardinals to go on to a 6-3 win over the Rockies at Coors Field.
With the win, the Cardinals secured their fourth National League Central championship in six years. In addition, Wainwright may have secured the first Cy Young Award of his still young career. He may have even done it with the four pitches to Giambi that finished off the eighth.
"He might have won the award in that eighth inning," manager Tony La Russa said.
Wainwright was the face of the win, going eight gutty innings and putting out some very scary fires. But there were plenty of heroes, none bigger than backup catcher Jason LaRue, whose seventh-inning solo homer broke a tie and provided the game-winning run.
LaRue was only in the game because in the fourth inning, starter Yadier Molina suffered a bruised left knee and had to be removed. Molina took a Clint Barmes foul bunt off his knee. He stayed in the game briefly after the injury, but was pulled before the inning was out.
"I don't ever want to go into a game that way," said LaRue. "But with the situation given to me, all I'm thinking about is to do whatever I can to get 'Waino' to go as long as we can in the game and keep us in the game with it being a tie game. In a million years, would I ever think about coming up in a situation like that, my first at-bat, hitting a home run? No. For me, I can't write a script any better."
The Cardinals had jumped to a 3-0 lead on Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez in the first inning, but then they had to hang on. Matt Holliday had an RBI single, Rick Ankiel drove in a run with a groundout and Molina added a run-scoring single as well.
"This is a type of ballclub that if you don't settle in quickly, they're going to make you pay, because they're deep," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy. "Their lineup is extremely deep. There's no real window of opportunity with this club where if you do create the opportunity, then they don't have the chance to put the ball in play and score runs."
Colorado rallied against Wainwright in the third and fourth. Todd Helton scored on Joe Thurston's throwing error after he doubled, and Brad Hawpe hit a two-run homer in the fourth. But that was all Wainwright would allow. And even in the fourth, he pulled a Houdini act, holding Colorado to two runs in an inning that could have been much worse.
He was stretched to 130 pitches, a season high, and was rarely even close to being taken out before handing the ball to Ryan Franklin for the ninth. This was Wainwright's game, and everyone in the visitors' dugout knew it.
"The seventh and eighth innings were the best I felt all night," Wainwright said. "I just think I had some major adrenaline going there. I had already blown one lead and I was not going to blow another, no matter what it took."
Ryan Ludwick added insurance in the top of the ninth when he hit a pinch-hit two-run homer, giving Franklin a welcome extra cushion. Ludwick, like several of his teammates, is going to the postseason for the first time.
"It's awesome," Ludwick said. "Awesome. I'm just glad I got a big hit tonight to help out a little bit. It's an incredible feeling. I really can't put it into words right now. So happy, so excited. I'll never forget this my entire life. Ever."
It's the 22nd outright regular-season division or league championship in franchise history, a list that doesn't include the Cardinals' tie for first place in the NL Central in 2001. They have made the postseason eight times in 14 years under La Russa. Now they will aim for their third NL pennant in six years, 18th in franchise history and ultimately their 11th world championship.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.