ST. LOUIS — Nobody wanted to leave. Nobody even wanted to sit down. Nobody wanted the night to end. Drama had returned to Busch Stadium for one magical night. Tension. Nerves. Meaningful baseball. Winning baseball.
Adam Wainwright, a fan favorite and baseball hero, had successfully ascended to the top of his own personal mountain, the pitching mound at Busch Stadium. For the entire 2023 season, that 10-inch-high bump in the middle of his favorite ball field might as well have been Mount Everest; the 42-year-old pitcher entered this game with a 7.95 ERA.
On Monday, it was once again his own personal playground, and it felt like old times. For seven innings, he baffled and befuddled the first-place Brewers, keeping them off balance and unsettled. Wainwright held Milwaukee scoreless in those seven innings, allowing just four hits and two walks. The bullpen finished off the last two innings, and the Cardinals won, 1-0.
Adam Wainwright had earned career win No. 200. Finally. He’d started the season needing just five wins to get to that plateau, and considering he’d won 28 over the previous two seasons, that seemed inevitable more than anything. It, um, wasn’t. He picked up win No. 198 in mid-June, then rattled off an 11-start winless streak that was downright ugly, with a 10.72 ERA. He finally got No. 199 last week in Baltimore, and this was his first shot at 200.
He wasn’t going to let it slip away.
“Having to work as hard as I had to work for it made me savor it that much more,” Wainwright said after the game. “There was a time where I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to keep going, or if they would even let me keep going. But I’m sure glad I got to.”
“That was one of the most fun games I’ve ever pitched in my whole life. It certainly will go down as a top-three moment for me ever, baseball-wise. Glad I got to do it here in front of our fans.”
Anyone else thinking of the great Vin Scully line from For Love of the Game, with Adam Wainwright channeling Billy Chapel?
“Tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.”
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) September 19, 2023
After the final out, every soul in the stadium wanted to help him celebrate. Jordan Walker, the potential superstar rookie, danced in the outfield as if his team had just clinched some sort of title. The fans all stayed, standing and cheering. The Brewers stayed, standing on the top step of the dugout, waiting for Wainwright — who spent the ninth inning in the trainers’ room — to emerge.
And when he did?
Chill-inducing cheers. Wainwright stepped out of the dugout, onto the field, and waved his cap, looking at the fans, and acknowledged the opposing club. He needed to collect himself for a moment, bending over with his hands on his knees for a few moments.
“I was crying like a baby, gasping-for-air crying out there,” he said. “I hadn’t done that in a long time. I don’t even know when the last time was. But what a cool thing, ya know, to lay it all out there on the mound pitching and then just be real. Be real out there and just be transparent, let everybody into my heart in that moment. That was special.”
That feeling was mutual.
And it was fitting that it was his new catcher, Willson Contreras, who provided the decisive run for Wainwright, a pitcher so closely linked to his previous catcher, Yadier Molina. That duo set a record that might never be broken, the most starts together as a battery (328).
The Cardinals signed Contreras to a five-year contract as a free agent this offseason, and the start of the season could not have gone much worse. The ball club quickly fell out of contention and never really recovered. Contreras struggled at the plate and behind the plate as he adapted to his new team. After just a handful of weeks, the long-term contract was written off as a complete bust. But Contreras has flipped that script, and Monday’s moment was some punctuation to the story he’s re-writing. The catcher got a couple extra-long hugs as he walked off the field after the game, first from manager Oli Marmol, the second from pitching coach Dusty Blake. They just felt cathartic.
Contreras’ fourth-inning home run was something to behold, a low line drive with an exit velocity of 114.7 mph. The only question was whether it would stay fair, though Contreras hit it so hard it had no time to drift foul, even if it might have wanted to at a slower pace.
Speaking of pace, there was a pace to this game that just felt like vintage Wainwright. He worked quickly, though still deliberately, He induced pop-ups and ground balls. He benefitted from a couple double plays, turned cleanly by his defense. It would have been an easier trip to No. 200 had the Cardinals scored a few more runs, but where’s the drama in that?
— Matt Pauley (@MattPauleyOnAir) September 19, 2023
Wainwright’s milestone victory needed tension. He’s thrived in the biggest moments his entire career — his Hello World moment happened in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, remember? — so working through seven innings with zero margin for error was perfect. With the win, he joins the 200-win club, a group that has just four other active members: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
“He’s been one of the best pitchers in this generation,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said before the game. “There’s no question about it. I admire how he pitches and what he’s accomplished.”
For maybe the first time ever, an entire ballpark of Cardinals fans agreed with the Brewers manager.