Whether it was mimicking how Chris Carpenter stood and glowered on the mound before a pitch or borrowing from how the veteran worked between starts, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has openly adopted many of Carpenter's traits as his own. Carpenter is his model, "always my measuring stick," Wainwright explained Tuesday.
And so it was last October that Wainwright drew a winner-take-all Game 5 start against the Washington Nationals. A year before, in 2011, Carpenter bronzed his place in Cardinals lore with a Game 5 shutout against Philadelphia that sped the Cardinals toward their 11th World Series championship. Wainwright saw his Game 5 as a chance to mirror his mentor.
He aimed to do what Carpenter did.
That's when things went awry.
"To be honest, I wanted to replicate his game," said Wainwright, whom the Nationals roughed up for six runs before the end of the third inning. "That was the wrong kind of thinking. I needed to be me. I needed to be focused and be prepared and be me."
Wainwright didn't have long to wait for a mulligan. Less than a year after his teammates' improbable comeback against Washington erased Wainwright's struggles and catapulted them to the National League championship series, the Cardinals are back in a Game 5. The Cardinals host Pittsburgh on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium in the finale of their National League division series, a best-of-five that is squared at 2-2. The winner of Wednesday night's game, the 24th between the two division rivals, advances to the NLCS later this week against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This is the third consecutive postseason that the Cardinals have a win-or-done Game 5 in the NLDS, and they've advanced to the league championship series each time. But not once in the 19 seasons since the advent of the division series have the Cardinals hosted the deciding game in St. Louis.
Pittsburgh needs a win for its first playoff series victory in 34 years.
"The game is out there for somebody to win it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Hurdle shuffled his rotation to start rookie and former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole on Wednesday night. The righty leapfrogged veteran A.J. Burnett for the assignment after holding the Cardinals to one run and two hits in six innings during a Game 2 win. The Cardinals stayed with their rotation, as planned from Game 1. Wainwright limited the Bucs to one run on three hits during seven innings for a win in the first game of the series. Rather than push Wainwright back on short rest when facing elimination Monday, the Cardinals got a win from rookie Michael Wacha and extra day of rest for ace Wainwright. Wacha's seven no-hit innings at PNC Park on Monday had the feel of a defining game for the youngster, similar to Carpenter's 1-0 shutout to clinch the NLDS in 2011 or Wainwright's curveball that closed a win and claimed the pennant in the 2006 NLCS Game 7.
Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. cautioned that one game does not define a pitcher. But these games are often defined by one pitcher.
"I think that a leader of the staff is expected to be a big-game pitcher," DeWitt said. "Adam has established that throughout his career. He's pitched in a lot of big games. He'll pitch in one (today). He has high expectations for himself."
He can because he is the sum of all his Octobers.
As a rookie, Wainwright saved wins in the postseason and fired the final pitch -- a slider, for a strikeout -- of the Cardinals' 2006 championship. As a starter, he's dazzled on the road, allowing one run and striking out seven at Dodger Stadium in 2009. Wainwright had a 10-K start against Washington last fall. He has set tones with two Game 1 starts and put the Cardinals one win from a pennant they didn't get with a Game 4 victory in last year's NLCS. He has done a bit of everything for the Cardinals in October except something his mentor did twice in 2011 -- start and win a clincher.
"All throughout my life I've wanted that," Wainwright said. "I've wanted to be in the pressure moments."
As if spinning a Blu-Ray with highlights from his playoff games, Wainwright recalled lessons he carries into Wednesday night's start in high-def and surround sound. At 25, Wainwright waited in the bullpen when Scott Spiezio pinch hit a triple that capsized Milwaukee's lead and put the Cardinals ahead in a key late-September game in 2006. Braden Looper had been warming up. The phone rang. Wainwright was coming in. He threw four pitches before having to close a one-run game. A few weeks later, Yadier Molina's ninth-inning homer put the Cardinals ahead in Game 7 of the NLCS at Shea Stadium. Wainwright entered with a one-run lead to cement.
He couldn't silence the din.
In the years since he's described the overwhelming noise of the Mets' fans and how he could hear individual insults hurled his way, as if the fan was whispering into his ear. His senses were alive. His pitches were astray as the first two batters reached base.
"I got back into my focus and I was able to get outs, (and) that's the lesson that I learned from that big moment and I've taken forward," Wainwright said. "I definitely would not be where I am today without that bullpen experience. ... There are a lot of valuable lessons learned in the urgency of each pitch, going out there and getting a guy out one time like it's going to be the last time you ever faced him. That's the mentality that I took into starting.
"That's the mentality that works for me."
Wainwright will be facing the Pirates for the second time this series and the third time since the start of September. In their past 14 innings against Wainwright, the Pirates have one run and five hits. Familiarity can breed comfort because, as Hurdle said, it allows an offense to ask, "Were there any more tendencies to jump into after he had seen you in a close period of time?"
It was the same wrinkle Wainwright faced a year ago. His final start of the regular season was against Washington, and by the time he pitched Game 5 it was his third start in two weeks against the Nationals. They had the look of a team that knew what was coming. The first three batters of the game doubled, tripled and homered -- in order. Wainwright had allowed three home runs before he had five outs. Six of the seven hits he allowed in 2 1/3 innings went for extra bases. He jokes now that he was giving his teammates the "motivation" they needed for a stirring rally that won the game 9-7. His role in the comeback gnawed at him.
"I guarantee that is not what he was looking for, not with his standards," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "And certainly a lot of his offseason was driven with that taste in his mouth."
Wainwright felt he had "hit or miss" stuff throughout last postseason because of the innings he packed onto to an elbow rebuilt in 2011. He admitted Tuesday that had the Cardinals reached the World Series there was "no guarantee my stuff would have returned." He pitched without such concerns this season, all the way to an NL-best 19 wins and 241 2/3 innings. Along the way he surpassed Carpenter in wins with the Cardinals and strikeouts, while narrowing the gap the sensei has in ERA, 3.07 to 3.11.
He saw last year's Game 5 as another seminar in his October education, an "opportunity you let go." It's an opportunity he now gets back.
He just has to be himself.
"Biggest game of the year, isn't it?" Wainwright said, grinning. "Biggest game of the year. That's what I always tell these guys. Every start of mine is the biggest game of the year."
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