NEW YORK -- When baseball is at its most electric, the stadium becomes a blur, the crowd becomes a murmur and the 48 other players and four umpires become meaningless bystanders. The entire focus is on one elite pitcher and one elite batter, with both of their senses tuned to microscopic alertness.
A few starts ago, Wainwright mentioned in his postgame comments that he was “hearing the music” again. When he is particularly comfortable with his mechanics and the sharpness of his pitches, he feels at times on the mound as if he is conducting an orchestra. He is able to change speeds and vary locations to generate a harmony of movement and command. When he is able to do that, he rarely hears any ugly sound, such as a ball colliding violently with a wooden bat.
His manager, Mike Matheny, picked up on that too. Maybe he could hear it. So although he often has lifted pitchers -- even those performing well -- when their spot came up in the lineup after the fifth inning lately, he let Wainwright roll. Through 100 pitches. Through 110 pitches. To face one of the league’s most menacing hitters with a runner on, despite relievers who were warmed and ready.
Wainwright had earned that by overcoming a lousy start to this season to go 4-0 with a 0.93 ERA thus far in July. He had earned it by putting up quality starts in eight of his nine previous outings. He had earned it during the game by getting out of jams in virtually every inning. The Mets leadoff hitter singled in both the fifth and sixth innings, but Wainwright didn’t buckle. He didn’t allow a run either time.
Matheny said he thought Wainwright deserved that batter, though it would be his last of the night because of “the last couple months and the last 10 years combined. This is a guy who makes better pitches when he gets his back against the wall.”
But Wainwright is not the only maestro drawing a major league paycheck. Sometimes two elite players have a confrontation that elevates the contest. In Wainwright’s own words, Cespedes is the New York Mets’ “guy, their big money maker.” The moment wasn’t lost on Wainwright.
“That was one of the coolest showdowns of the year for me, for sure,” Wainwright said.
It turned, slowly, in Cespedes’ favor. He took a curveball for a ball to reach a full count, then fouled off three straight pitches, including a 94 mph elevated fastball. Then Wainwright threw what he described as “the one pitch I was trying not to throw,” a curveball that was a little too high and a little too far inside. Cespedes hit it off the facing of the second deck in left-center field for his 22nd home run this season. It looked like the moment Wainwright would think about for the next five days and a moment the Cardinals might look back on in October, if they are no longer playing.
“I was ready to bang my head into the wall and crawl into a hole and die there for a little while,” Wainwright said. “It was pretty sad.”
However, there was a moment or two that mattered after that seventh inning. The Cardinals rallied for two unlikely runs against an almost unbeatable closer, Jeurys Familia, who was four days away from the anniversary of his last blown save when the Cardinals gave him another. They rallied for their biggest win of the season 5-4.
“Baseball is funny. Right when you think it’s your lowest moment of the year, the team wipes that away, and now I’m looking forward to my next start already,” Wainwright said. “Instead of having a flight full of sorrow and pouty pants, now I’ll have some good times with the boys.”
With the Cardinals down to their last out, Jedd Gyorko worked a walk. Yadier Molina jumped on the first sinker above the knees -- which happened to be the first pitch of the at-bat -- and hammered it off the base of the left-center field wall to tie it. Pinch hitter Kolten Wong won the game by slicing a double down the left-field line, and then closer Seung Hwan Oh handled the bottom of the inning.
Just like that, the Cardinals had their best evidence yet that this could be a special year. Most of the evidence thus far had suggested their karma wasn’t working for them, as their run differential wasn’t translating into a satisfying win total. Now they are just one game out of the wild card, ahead of the Mets, and they have another chance to make up ground when they get to Miami early Thursday.
“We’re fighting,” Molina said. "We’re not giving up."