LOS ANGELES -- It was here at Dodger Stadium two and a half years ago that Adam Wainwright's rocky transition from big league reliever to starter reached a crossroads.
He had been on the Busch Stadium mound only seven months earlier getting Detroit's Brandon Inge to swing through strike three and effectively bring a world championship to St. Louis. But now, after Wainwright endured the worst start of his still short Major League career, his 2006 postseason dominance was the furthest thing from his mind.
It was May 16, 2007, and manager Tony La Russa walked to the mound to pull Wainwright from a game that the Cardinals would eventually lose to the Dodgers, 9-7. Wainwright lasted a meager 2 2/3 innings, allowing eight earned runs on seven hits and four walks in the process.
"I really don't know what to say," Wainwright said after that start, the eighth of his career. "I was embarrassed, I know that."
Never could Wainwright have imagined how that outing -- as bad and as embarrassing as it might have been -- proved to be a turning point in his now budding career. Not only has the right-hander never looked back, but the direction he turned at that fork has led Wainwright back to Dodger Stadium, where, on Thursday, he will take the mound as the Cardinals' Game 2 National League Division Series starter.
"I remember here in L.A. telling the press that I've been terrible this far but I'm going to figure it out," Wainwright said before Wednesday's 5-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1, reflecting on that '07 start. "I remember saying those exact words. And I'm not saying that I figured it out, but I've certainly made a lot of adjustments and learned a lot about me as a pitcher and starting."
Wainwright's results ever since that outing would suggest that he has, in fact, figured it out. In 2007, that loss to the Dodgers was followed by 24 more starts in which Wainwright went 11-9 with a 2.96 ERA. He got better in 2008 -- 11-3, 3.20 ERA -- and dominant in 2009 -- 19-8, 2.63 ERA. And he may very well soon have a Cy Young Award to his name.
No one in baseball won more games than Wainwright this season, but no win would be greater than one on Thursday. In a series where three losses is all it takes for a team's season to end, Wainwright is looking to get the Cardinals the victory that Chris Carpenter couldn't on Wednesday.
"As a starter, I mean, he's got that ability," La Russa said. "This guy has an ability to keep his concentration, keep his delivery, keep his guts together, and he makes pitches in key situations."
Much of that mentality comes directly from Wainwright's taste of closing in the 2006 postseason. He assumed the role after the Cardinals lost closer Jason Isringhausen to late-season hip surgery. It was Wainwright's first taste of October baseball, and he thrived.
In leading a Cardinals bullpen that allowed just one run in the World Series, Wainwright went through the postseason without allowing a run in 9 2/3 innings of relief. He notched four saves in nine appearances.
If Wainwright had that success under such pressure as a 25-year-old rookie, it makes one wonder how ready Wainwright -- with two years of maturation and success under his belt now -- is to seize postseason opportunity No. 2.
"I know what to expect," Wainwright said. "It took me the first half of '07 to sort of find out what kind of pitcher I was as a starter, what was my identity, what kind of approach did I need to take into every game. And really what works best for me is taking a reliever mentality out there to start.
"If I pace myself or try to save anything for the later parts of the inning, I'm going to be out in the fourth. I figured that out in L.A., in '07."
How fitting it is, then, that he's now back.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.