ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals played their first September/October home game with first place at stake to the winner since 2001 when Houston and the Cardinals were fighting for the division lead on the last weekend of the season here, with both winding up in the playoffs.
If it was to be the Cardinals' biggest game of the season, to date, Saturday night before a sold-out house of 45,110 at Busch Stadium, their top starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, would have to be at his best after being at his admitted worst in his two previous outings. Wainwright stared this challenge in the eye.
Winning his 16th, Wainwright blanked Pittsburgh on two hits for seven innings, and the Cardinals moved back into first place in the National League Central Division for the first time this month with a 5-0 win over the Pirates, who slipped one-half game behind the Cardinals. Hard-charging Cincinnati, winner of five of its last six games, stands third, just 11/2 games off the Cardinals' pace.
David Freese, his power stroke warming, hit his second homer in his last three games, a 425-foot blast to center, and drove in another with a sacrifice fly. Yadier Molina, who homered in his final at-bat on Friday after picking himself out of the dirt, doubled twice and scored two runs. Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness and Randy Choate finished off the Pirates after Wainwright had been pulled following his 100th pitch.
In his previous victory, on Aug. 23, Wainwright had thrown a season-high 128 pitches in a complete-game win against Atlanta.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had said before the game that hitting coach John Mabry and several Cardinals pitchers, notably injured ace Chris Carpenter, had detected that Wainwright might have been "tipping" his pitches in the back-to-back drubbings by the Reds, who scored 15 runs in eight innings against Wainwright.
The signature Wainwright breaking ball was in clear view, unlike some recent games.
"You could see, at times, his breaking ball just didn't have the bite," said Matheny. "It was sharp, right from the second pitch he threw."
But Wainwright also featured, and located, his fastball, cutter and changeup. "He had it all today," said Matheny.
Wainwright was disturbed by his last two outings but not as disturbed, apparently, as some of the folks who posted messages he allowed himself to read one day on social media.
"Mild panic," was the tenor of the postings, said Wainwright.
Wainwright said he ran harder, lifted harder and studied film harder in the past five days. "Between the last start and this start, I did everything imaginable to be ready for this day," he said.
That included firing up the computer.
"I looked at a few message boards," he said. "I wanted to see what fan reaction was, what media reaction was. And then I didn't open the computer to look at that stuff again. I just used it motivationally.
"I knew I could still pitch a very good game. I knew that those two games (against the Reds) were completely a fluke.
"Basically, the way to make pitching as simple as possible is to repeat your delivery and execute pitches."
Given his recent travail, Wainwright took a different approach to his bullpen session between starts. He didn't throw one.
"I didn't want to practice bad mechanics," said Wainwright. "I didn't have a plan yet. I didn't want to work on something that was counterproductive."
Instead, there was long-tossing and film watching for several days as coaches and players tried to help fine-tune him.
"We found a few things we knew we could adjust and make more successful," said Wainwright. "We went out today and did it."
Whether or not it was adjusting any "tell" he might have had on his pitches, Wainwright said, "I do know that my stuff tonight was different. It was sharper, it was down, it was cutting, it was biting. When I'm doing that, I'm very tough."
When Wainwright fanned Justin Morneau to end the first, it was the rigthander's 1,096th strikeout, moving him into second place on the Cardinals' career list ahead of Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean. Wainwright (16-9) would tack on seven more strikeouts, moving him 2,014 behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who has the club record at 3,117.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke (9-5), who had been removed from the rotation for a mental break, lasted just five innings, giving up three hits and three runs, two of them earned, but he walked four and ran up 91 pitches in virtually half a game.
The Pirates threatened in the fourth when Andrew McCutchen doubled and Morneau walked with nobody out. But Wainwright induced Marlon Byrd to roll to shortstop Pete Kozma, who snatched the ball after juggling it, skipped to second to force Morneau and then nipped Byrd at first.
Wainwright doesn't like walks. He has issued only 31 in 30 games.
"I hate walking people," he said. "But I was not going to let Justin Morneau ... beat me right there. At the very least, I pitch him tough, he goes to first, I get a double play. That's what I was thinking. Luckily, we were able to make it happen."
Locke, an All-Star whose last win was July 21, issued his fourth walk, to Carlos Beltran, to open the Cardinals' fourth. Molina doubled into the right-field corner, setting up the Cardinals with runners at second and third.
Freese lined a sacrifice fly to deep left to break the scoreless deadlock.
A wild pitch moved Molina to third. Brock Peterson struck out but Kozma grounded a ball over third, where Pedro Alvarez made a diving stop but, throwing from his knees, couldn't get Kozma at first as Molina scored the second run.
Despite Kozma's .215 average overall, he is hitting .312 with men in scoring position. The RBI was his first since Aug. 11, which was the date of his last hit before his bunt single on Friday.
Wainwright said he has known for a while that the Pirates were more formidable than a team that had had 20 straight losing seasons.
"It's a team that's played us tough for years and years, even when they weren't very good," he said. "Now they're confident and they're trying to prove the world wrong."
Wainwright said he also knew that 2011 postseason hero Freese would come to the fore.
"It's about his time to go, isn't it?" said Wainwright.
Freese preferred a different take. "I'd like to think this is 'our' time of year," Freese said.
And maybe it is.
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