DENVER – Adam Wainwright often tries to convince his teammates that starting pitchers are the best athletes in the clubhouse. He admits they don’t usually live up to such talk, but Wainwright certainly strengthened his case by driving in a pair of runs in a 4-3 win over the Rockies on Wednesday night.
Wainwright also continued to show that visiting pitchers can succeed in the Mile High altitude, allowing three runs over 7 2/3 innings for a 1.85 ERA in four appearances (three starts) at Coors Field.
The Cardinals’ second consecutive win handed them a two-game lead over the Pirates — who lost their third straight to the Padres on Wednesday — atop the National League Central. It’s their largest lead in the division since July 26, when they held a 2 1/2-game lead, and they’ll try to win the series Thursday afternoon behind rookie right-hander Michael Wacha.
But it all nearly came tumbling down in the ninth. Closer Edward Mujica gave up a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Dexter Fowler, recording two quick outs before Troy Tulowitzki stepped into the batter’s box. After falling behind Tulowitzki 2-0, the Cardinals intentionally walked him.
Charlie Culberson followed with a single that pelted third baseman Daniel Descalso in the left shoulder and loaded the bases. The moment set up perfectly for the soon-to-be-retired Todd Heltonto plate the tying run.
But Mujica gritted his teeth and struck out the Rockies icon with a high fastball as catcher Yadier Molina emphatically threw his fist through the air.
“Everybody knows I’m going to throw my best pitch there, and my best pitch is a changeup,” Mujica said. “After that, I think that pitch surprised him. Fastball high in the zone because I think he’s looking for that pitch to drive it to the other side.”
“The moment was great,” Helton said with a smile. “You couldn’t ask for a better moment. You could ask for a lot better result. But just learn from it and go on.”
In the first inning, it looked like Wainwright might finally succumb to the high altitude. Colorado reeled off four consecutive hits to start the game, with Tulowitzki sending a single through the infield dirt to give the Rockies a 2-0 lead with no outs.
It was then that Wainwright made the adjustments that have helped him dispel the park’s notorious reputation.
“My curveball early on, if you look at the first few breaking balls I threw, were spinners or yankers and then I found the right grip, the right arm slot to make it work every time,” said Wainwright, who recorded his 17th win, second-most in the NL. “Once I found that, I locked it in and it was a completely different ballgame.
“It’s an interesting place to pitch. But it’s also a place that if you go into it thinking that your stuff won’t work, your stuff won’t work.”
Though it seemed like the Cardinals ace was struggling through the inning, Wainwright said he felt his only mistake pitch was a hanging breaking ball that DJ LeMahieu turned into a double. He also got through the inning with 17 pitches, crucial in allowing him to pitch into the eighth.
“You look at what’s going on out there, you thought he had thrown 35 [pitches] because it just felt like it was one hit after the other,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “But he was challenging guys early in the count. We had a couple ground balls that just got past the infielder’s gloves, and those are going to happen.”
With the game knotted at 2 in the fourth, Wainwright himself drove in the go-ahead run. Rockies starter Tyler Chatwood intentionally walked Descalso to face the opposing pitcher, but Wainwright mailed a broken-bat single just beyond the glove of a LeMahieu at third base to score Molina.
St. Louis took a 4-2 lead in the next inning with an RBI single from Molina, the run scoring before he was tagged out sliding into second.
Chatwood (7-5) made it through the sixth, giving up four runs on eight hits.
Wainwright — who went 3-for-3 at the plate — was also behind the Cardinals’ early rally in the third when he roped an RBI double deep into left field. Matt Carpenter then shot a low line drive through the infield to tie the game at 2. “Those are the most fun days,” Wainwright said of his offensive outburst.
Colorado trimmed the lead to 4-3 behind Helton. Fans from both sides rose to their feet when Helton, who announced earlier this week he will retire after the season, doubled to right to start the sixth. Charlie Blackmon followed with a double down the first-base line to plate Helton.
Wainwright was pulled with two outs in the eighth and runners on first and second, but Trevor Rosenthal kept the Cardinals’ lead safe. That allowed Mujica to escape with his 37th save.
With the win and the Nationals’ loss to the Braves, St. Louis’ magic number fell to three, as the postseason comes closer into view. The men in the clubhouse are doing their very best to avoid scoreboard watching, but there’s only so much they can control.
“You see the big scoreboard out there, and it’s real hard for us to ignore it,” Matheny said. “Especially when from the dugout view it’s right next to Waino’s head.”
By Ian McCue / MLB.com
Ian McCue is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.