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Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Updated: October 10, 3:09 AM ET
Adam Wainwright's moment

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- It was 9:42 p.m. in the Central time zone when Usain Bolt burst out of the dugout of the St. Louis Cardinals and sprinted toward the pitcher's mound at Busch Stadium, at about the same pace with which he once won the Olympic 100-meter dash.

Oh, wait. That wasn't Usain Bolt. That was Adam Wainwright, the man who had just pitched the first eight innings of a momentous, winner-take-all postseason baseball game. He had no choice, he would say later, but to charge out there for the ninth inning by motoring toward that mound "as fast as I've run all year."

Any slower, he laughed, and his manager, that ever-calculating Mike Matheny, might have been tempted to take him out of a game he'd waited all his life to pitch.

"There was no way I was even looking back at Mike at the end of that game," Wainwright confessed. "I wanted that game."

In truth, he didn't just want "that game." He wanted all nine innings of "that game." He wanted to bask in every moment of a game he will look back on as one of the defining nights of his baseball career.

Adam Wainwright
Adam Wainwright went the distance in Game 5, ending the Pirates' storybook season and propelling the Cardinals into the NLCS for the third straight year.

"These are the kind of moments," said Wainwright, "that starting pitchers live for."

For eight seasons as a Cardinal, he has waited for that moment -- his moment -- to arrive. Finally, on a heart-pumping Wednesday night in St. Louis, he was the man who owned the mound in a winner-take-all October baseball game.

It was his nine brilliant innings, in a 6-1 win in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, that would end the October dreams of the Pittsburgh Pirates and send the Cardinals onward to their third consecutive NLCS.

Before this night, the list of Cardinals pitchers who had ever spun a complete-game win in a "sudden-death" postseason game consisted of just these names: Dizzy Dean (1934), Bob Gibson (1967), Danny Cox (1987) and Chris Carpenter (2011). By the end of the night, Wainwright had joined that prestigious club.

In the 19-season wild-card era, only two National League pitchers before this had ever thrown nine innings of one-run baseball in Game 5 of a Division Series: Carpenter (2011) and Curt Schilling (2001). On this unforgettable evening, Wainwright would add his name to that group, too.

He has always been a guy who understood the meaning of reaching for the stars on nights like this one. He always had a picture in his mind of one day being That Guy, whose team couldn't wait to lean on him when it had one game left to win.

"I think back to Josh Beckett, when he was with the Marlins, getting carried off the field in the [2003] World Series," Wainwright said, "and Chris Carpenter in Game 5 in Philly. Those big moments like that, that's just something that pitchers dream of."

Especially this pitcher. Only two years ago this week, Wainwright would reflect afterward, he could vividly recall watching Carpenter -- his friend, his mentor, his idol -- pitch all nine innings of a game like this, outdueling Roy Halladay in another epic NLDS Game 5.

Now, Wainwright said, "I'm just trying to live up to that standard that Carp put out, to be that Cardinals leader. That's the guy I've always wanted to be, watching Carp. And I knew that one day, it was going to be my turn to step up and fulfill that."

In many ways, he'd already taken that turn, as Carpenter's physical issues mounted and Wainwright's stature on this staff grew. This was the night it all culminated, in a performance Wainwright would later describe as "one of the highlights of my baseball life."

As determined as he was before the ninth inning not to let his manager take him out of this game, he was just as determined, from the moment he first gripped the ball, not to let his team's season end with him on the mound.

"I knew it was Game 5, and I knew I didn't want to go home yet," he said. "It's not time for hunting season, yet. We've still got more Champagne to open. That's how I look at it."

So he took the mound with a special level of energy and emotion you don't often see pitchers allow themselves to express. He caught himself screaming into the night after big outs -- and sometimes not-so-big outs. He was pretty sure, at night's end, that he'd just set a new career high for most fist-pumps.

"I was really having to contain my fist pumps," he said, "because I felt like I was going to do it every pitch. I felt like I was closing, from the first pitch of the game on. I think that was the first time in my career I ever fist-pumped after the first out of an inning."

He had reason to shake those fists, because he grabbed ahold of this game from the first inning onward and wouldn't let go.

He allowed just two hits over the first six innings. He appeared to be in such total control that when Mr. Elimination Game, David Freese, launched a two-run second-inning homer off Pirates starter Gerrit Cole, those two runs felt like 20.

David Freese
Elimination games seem to bring out the best in David Freese, whose two-run homer in the second inning staked St. Louis to a 2-0 lead.

"My first thought after David homered," Wainwright confessed, "was, 'That's all we need.' But my second thought was, 'All right, let's collect ourselves and get back into that one-pitch-at-a-time mentality.' I didn't want to look too far ahead. I knew I had good stuff. I knew I had a good plan. I knew it was going to be hard for them to scrape some runs across. But I knew they were a very talented team. So the key was keeping them off base."

He eventually would lose his shutout on three bizarre infield hits in the seventh inning. Then Matt Adams blew this game open again with a two-run homer in the middle of a three-run eighth inning. After Wainwright batted and made the last out of the bottom of the eighth, the only drama at that point was whether Matheny would send Wainwright back out for the ninth, with a five-run lead and 96 pitches thrown.

"But he came back in, got dressed and took a sprint out to the mound," Matheny said. "And it made everybody in the whole stadium's hair stand on end, because you could see he wanted that ball worse than anything in the world. He just means so much to this team, the way he goes about his business, day-in and day-out. And that's the guy we want on the mound. In a big situation, that's the guy we want leading this staff."

The Cardinals made that clear a little more than six months ago, when they signed this man to a five-year, $97.5 million contract extension that kept him off the free-agent market and tied him to the Cardinals through the 2018 season.

That's a lot of years and a lot of dollars for a pitcher who turned 32 in August and who, at the time, hadn't proven he was fully recovered from his 2011 Tommy John surgery. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was asked Wednesday night if he'd envisioned a night like this when he signed his ace to that deal. The GM smiled and summed up how this team feels about Adam Wainwright with one word:

"Yes."

When the Cardinals made that commitment, "we certainly understood the type of talent he was," Mozeliak said. "But what he brings to the table as a person is what we knew we had to retain. We find that combination very special. And we didn't want to miss that opportunity."

Neither, for that matter, did Wainwright himself. Just as Carpenter once guided and mentored him, Wainwright has connected with the next generation of Cardinals phenoms -- Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly -- teaching, leading, imparting the lessons Carpenter once taught him.

Matt Adams
Matt Adams' 402-foot foot blast to right field with Matt Holliday aboard gave the Cards a 5-1 cushion in the eighth inning.

Now it's Carpenter who finds himself looking on, watching Wainwright assume the responsibilities of acehood, on and off the field. On a night like this one, it was the ace of the last group of Cardinals champions who could just about literally see the torch being passed before his eyes.

"To watch him grow from a young kid to what he's doing right now, I couldn't be happier," Carpenter said, from across a euphoric Cardinals locker room. "It's almost like seeing my son grow up. I mean, I know he's not my son's age. But that's what it's like. It's just been so much fun to be a part of, and so much fun to watch him do what he does. He sets a standard, no question. He sets a standard for this organization."

That's a powerful statement unto itself. Perhaps the Giants, the Braves, the Dodgers or the Phillies could make an argument that they've been the National League's preeminent franchise for some arbitrary period of time that fits their own definition of excellence. In truth, the bar in this league has been set by the St. Louis Cardinals. Nights like this one ought to be all the proof anyone needs.

They are built for games like this, moments like this, turbo-charged environments like this. It feels as if they ALWAYS respond.

They've now played six winner-take-all postseason games in the past three Octobers -- and won five of them. They've played nine elimination games in the past three postseasons -- and won eight of them.

Twice now over the past three years, they've charged back to win Games 4 and 5 of a Division Series after falling behind, two games to one (the other time coming in 2011, against the Phillies). Maybe that doesn't seem so difficult -- except that all the other franchises in baseball have combined to do that ONCE in the past decade.

"When we were talking in Pittsburgh about what it was like to play in that environment, I said, 'These guys love that environment,'" said Mozeliak. "And tonight was no different. We just happened to be the home team. But I think playing in front of a full house always energizes this club. So when we talk about why we have so much success in these settings, I think it's because these guys embrace it. They don't fear it."

Another thing that makes them special is that their leaders aren't position players, they're pitchers. Yadier Molina leaves his mark on this team in many ways, but it's Carpenter and Wainwright who power the Cardinals' engine. That doesn't happen in many clubhouses.

Carpenter can only lead the way with words now. But Wainwright's heart thumps over the chance to climb those mountaintops in the biggest games of his team's season. For the first time in his career, he has done it in a monstrous win-or-else October game.

When he signed that contract last March, he said Wednesday night, he wasn't merely grabbing for dollars. He was grabbing for something far more meaningful.

"There's no amount of money that's worth what we have going inside this clubhouse," he said. "This is a family to me. This is more than teammates. This is a family. So I feel so blessed to be here with them and share moments like this. And we'll remember them for the rest of our lives."