The St. Louis Cardinals may have lost their leader behind the plate, but they haven't forgotten how to win.
Adam Wainwright had another brilliant outing, holding the Brewers to two runs over seven innings, adding to his stellar résumé in a bid to be the NL's starting pitcher at Tuesday's All-Star Game.
Wainwright relied on his signature curveball to silence the Brewers' bats, throwing it a season-high 33 percent of the time. He threw 31 curves, netting him nine outs with only one baserunner allowed; six of the seven curveballs put in play resulted in grounders.
The Cardinals' ace fell behind early and often against the Brewers, but that mattered little. Wainwright went to a 1-0 count on 13 of the 27 batters he faced, but only one of those 13 batters reached base. (Carlos Gomez got hit with a pitch in the third inning.)
A nine-year veteran with a trio of top-three Cy Young finishes already to his name, Wainwright is having the best season of his career, with a sparkling 1.83 ERA and 12-4 record in 19 starts.
This first-half performance is one of the best in Cardinals history and has earned him a place alongside a Hall of Famer. The only other St. Louis pitcher with at least 12 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA heading into the All-Star break was Steve Carlton, who went 12-5 with a 1.65 ERA over 18 starts prior to the break in 1969.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a tough choice to make in deciding who will be on the mound for the senior circuit to start the All-Star Game. Clayton Kershaw has been equally dominant, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Wainwright leads the NL with 138 innings while Kershaw has not yet reached the century mark this season.
That workhorse mentality and consistency are what set Wainwright apart. Consider this comparison:
On Saturday, Wainwright notched his major league-leading 15th start of at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. That's nearly twice as many as Kershaw (8) has thrown this season. Wainwright also has nine outings of at least seven scoreless innings; Kershaw has only five.
Though Kershaw has the slightly better ERA (1.78 vs. 1.83), Wainwright has the better mark when adjusting for a pitcher's ballpark, and he has also faced much tougher competition than Kershaw.
Entering Saturday's game, Wainwright's opponents had a collective .693 OPS for the season, and that number only increased after he faced the powerful Brewers. The teams that Kershaw has faced have a combined OPS of .680, which is roughly the equivalent of pitching against the Mets every game.
With the injuries to Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, combined with the general ineffectiveness of Shelby Miller, Wainwright has been the clear staff ace and the glue that has held together the Cardinals' rotation this season.
Wainwright's performance was not the only noteworthy one on Saturday for the Cardinals, who appear to be breaking out of their season-long offensive slump. For the first time this season they scored at least seven runs in back-to-back games and went 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
The Cardinals got contributions throughout the entire lineup, with the 1-2 batters (Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong) combining to go 3-for-9 with three RBIs and the 7-8 batters (Tony Cruz and Jon Jay) going 5-for-10 with four RBIs.
Wong has been on tear recently, with five homers in his past seven games. This is an unprecedented display of power from the light-hitting second baseman, who had homered only once in his first 77 career major league games.
Another nice surprise was catcher Tony Cruz driving in a career-best three runs. Cruz will never be able to match the pitch-calling skills or the arm of Molina behind the plate, but the Cardinals will have a lot less to worry about if Cruz can improve on his career .600 OPS and give them some timely hits.
On Sunday, the Cardinals will go for their first sweep of the Brewers since last May and a chance to claim first place outright in the NL Central for the first time this season.
With Wainwright at the peak of his game, the Cardinals' bats finally showing signs of life and the Brewers in complete free fall, it appears that St. Louis has put itself in prime position to capture yet another division title.
The first few months have been a struggle for Mike Matheny and this Cardinals team, but now it seems inevitable that they'll end up exactly where the experts predicted they'd be at the start of the season -- looking down at the rest of the NL Central.