Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY Sports
ST. LOUIS - Sometime after Adam Wainwright underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in February 2011, his team evolved into a juggernaut.
Wainwright missed out on the fun the first time around, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery as the St. Louis Cardinals staged a rally for the ages to claim the 2011 World Series.
This time, Wainwright is an integral part of the action. And Wednesday night, he made his most meaningful contribution yet, pitching the Cardinals to within one victory of defending their championship.
Wainwright held the San Francisco Giants to four hits and one run over seven innings Thursday and the Cardinals jumped on Tim Lincecum and his relievers as they pounded out an 8-3 victory that gave them a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series.
"He was lights out," said Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter of Wainwright. "We knew he was going to give us this kind of performance. We all had confidence he could go out there and pitch the way he did."
BOX SCORE: Cardinals 8, Giants 3 (Cards lead 3-1)
Of the 33 teams to go up by that margin in the LCS, 27 have advanced to the World Series.
With one more victory, the defending champions would set up a rematch of the 2006 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, who on Thursday completed their four-game wipeout of the New York Yankees in the ALCS.
"It's been an up and down year and what-not, but our team's remained confident. We're the world champions and we did it last year," said Cardinals slugger Allen Craig, who started in right field on Thursday. "We've always believed in what we have in here."
Wainwright, a stopgap closer in 2006, got the last out of both the NLCS and World Series that year to earn a ring as a rookie. But last year he could only cheer as St. Louis won its 11th Fall Classic while he recovered from surgery.
He was nearly the goat of the Division Series, giving up six runs in 2 1/3 innings in the deciding Game 5 before his teammates mounted an epic comeback against the Washington Nationals to win 9-7.
"It was a big motivator," he said of the Nationals game. "I know that I'm good enough to pitch in the postseason, to carry this team deep into the game, give them a quality game, a quality outing. Last time I didn't do it but I knew tonight if I just believed in myself and went out there and executed pitches I would be in good shape."
And that comeback, it seems, has again turned the entire Cardinals team into a runaway train.
They have pounced on a Giants rotation that was iffy coming in, the Cardinals' 6-4 statement in Game 1 sufficient for Giants manager Bruce Bochy to decree that lefty Madison Bumgarner would not start another game in the series.
Bochy finally settled late Wednesday on Lincecum as his Game 4 starter. Friday, in Game 5, the Cardinals may be licking their chops to face lefty Barry Zito, whose signature curveball may well be neutralized by St. Louis' gaggle of right-handed power hitters (8 p.m., ET, FOX).
Zito is facing the Cardinals at the wrong time. Following the 2011 blueprint of squeezing into the playoffs, then staying hot, the Cardinals are looking just as formidable, as their pitching staff has shut down the Giants in the last two games while the offense has started to reawaken.
Matt Holliday snapped out of a hitting funk with two RBI singles and Carpenter, subbing for the injured Carlos Beltran, contributed again by reaching base three times and scoring twice.
"Carpenter has been great for us all year coming off the bench and coming through when he's had the opportunity, so I'm just happy for him," said Beltran, who believes he can play on Friday.
An early 4-1 deficit made the Giants' cause seem a lost one, because of their inconsistent offense and also because of the man pitching to them.
Before his brutal outing against the Nationals, Wainwright had a 0.77 career postseason ERA in 23 1/3 innings. On Thursday, in his first career League Championship Series start, he again performed up to his more typical standards.
Mixing his trademark curveball with well-located fastballs in the low 90s, Wainwright gave up his lone run on Hunter Pence's home run in the second.
"I know that I'm good enough to pitch in the postseason and to carry this team deep into the game and give them a quality outing," Wainwright said. "Last time, I didn't do it. I knew tonight if I just believed in myself and executed pitches, I'd be in good shape."
Now, it is the Cardinals who are in good shape. One might say they're now complete, armed as they are with Wainwright, who only makes this emerging powerhouse all the more formidable in October.
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