ST. LOUIS--When St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright got to state his case to manager Mike Matheny for pitching one last time in the regular season, he explained that 10 days between appearances was too much. He wanted to get a few innings to avoid the break. He volunteered to even appear in relief if necessary.
"Give me something," Wainwright said.
He got that and much more.
In the Cardinals' 6-2 victory against the Cubs, Wainwright punctuated one of his strongest seasons of his career with 5 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday and his 19th victory. He got the innings needed to "stay sharp" for his start Thursday in Game 1 of the National League division series and he put final touch of gloss on his baseball card stats. The righty will finish the season tied with Washington's Jordan Zimmermann for the league high in wins, the second time in the past five seasons that he'll lead the NL in wins. By not allowing a run, Wainwright dropped his ERA to less than 3.00, at 2.94, and with a single in his last at-bat of the regular season he held his average at .211.
"I wanted to keep my average above .200," Wainwright joked. "That was the perfect day for me right now. That was exactly what we had planned. Five innings. We won the game. I got the work in and go out of there to get some good rest, too."
The game was not without its postseason importance. The Cardinals' fifth consecutive win moved them a game ahead of Atlanta for the best record in the National League. The Braves (95-66), who lost to Philadelphia on Saturday night, hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cardinals (96-95). To earn home-field advantage throughout the NL postseason, the Cardinals must finish a game ahead of the Braves. With a win Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Cubs, the Cardinals can assure they will host the winner of Tuesday's wild-card playoff in Game 1 on Thursday.
The Cardinals' division rivals, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, will meet in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to determine which team advances to the NLDS.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before Saturday's game that he didn't see a major difference between being the first seed or second seed into the NL playoffs. The second seed will draw the LA Dodgers and lefty Clayton Kershaw in the best-of-five round. Matheny's point underscored the tricky balance he's attempted to strike after clinching the division title Friday -- get players healthy, keep them sharp, and win when possible. Matheny announced that he'll start Jake Westbrook on Sunday as a nod to the veteran, but scheduled starter Joe Kelly will be ready and used in relief.
"We want to keep that standard set," Matheny said. "We go about playing the game the right way no matter what. Our priority is what does each of these guys need individually. If some of them need a couple at-bats, if some of them need an extra day, we're going to go that route. We're competing to win."
How Matheny's approach works in practice was on display Saturday. Left fielder Matt Holliday raised his season average to .300 for the first time this summer with a two-run homer in the first inning. He had one more plate appearance, walked, and was removed for a pinch-runner. Matheny said he would speak with Holliday about whether he wants to play Sunday or hold firm at .300, a number "that means more to us probably than him," the manager said. By the ninth inning, Matheny had made enough moves that only one postseason starter remained on the field -- first baseman Matt Adams.
Catcher Yadier Molina hit a second two-run double in as many days to increase the Cardinals' lead to 5-0. Molina scored against former teammate Edwin Jackson (8-18) as part of a four-run third inning. Jackson left the game trailing 6-0 with lat discomfort after only 2 2/3 innings. Molina played through the fourth inning before Tony Cruz pinch-hit for him. Molina's double game him 44 for the season, one shy of Ivan Rodriguez's record for the most as a catcher since 1920.
"What gets you ready?" Matheny said, recalling the question he's asked his everyday players going into the weekend. "Our priority stays the same."
Matheny's intent to get players the innings or at-bats they need and the momentum they want going into the playoffs worked for all but former closer Edward Mujica. Given a six-run lead to protect in the ninth, Mujica allowed a homer, two doubles and two runs before Matheny removed him. Seth Maness produced the game-ending double play for his first career save.
Wainwright (19-9) leaves the regular season with the feeling and feel for his pitches he wanted. The righty struck out five, four on his curveball, and finished the year with a career-high 219 strikeouts. He walked one batter to finish with one more walk this season (35) than starts (34). A mentor of his with the Braves, John Smoltz, spoke each spring about leading the league in innings. Wainwright did that this season with 241 2/3, tying Chris Carpenter's 2005 total for the most by a Cardinals starter since 1989. It is the second time that he's led the NL in wins and innings in the same season. He did it in 2009, when he finished third in the Cy Young Award's voting.
"I'm proud of that," Wainwright said. "When you look at the end of the year and you lead the league in innings, most of the time all of the other numbers fall in place. It's a good lesson. Go out there and you keep you team in the game, save your bullpen, and give yourself and your team a chance to win. That's what a starting pitcher's job is."Wainwright entered Sunday's game with a pitch limit. He was efficient enough through five innings to qualify for the win and go out and start the sixth to receive the ovation.
Matheny pulled him after facing one batter in the sixth inning so that the crowd "could express what they think about" his season. Wainwright made the point that the chance to stay sharp was necessary and the applause was welcome, but Saturday wasn't just a coronation on the way to October.
"It was important that we win," he said. "We're still fighting for home-field advantage."
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