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"My confidence that I can still pitch is higher than ever," he says. With two outs in the first, Smoltz catches too much of the plate with a changeup, and Fielder turns on it and yanks the ball into the rightfield seats for a two-run homer. Smoltz kicks the mound—he had not wanted to give Fielder anything to hit. In the second Smoltz gives up three consecutive line-drive singles and a run.
And then ... that's it. Smoltz strikes out the next two batters. He strikes out two more in the fourth, and two more in the fifth. His slider is sharper. His fastball is the best it has been in more than a year. He freezes Ryan Braun with a 95-mph heater over the inside corner. He leaves after five mostly good innings; his strikeout-to-walk ratio since he joined the Cardinals is a ludicrous 28 to 1.
"Did you see Smoltz?" La Russa asks after the Cards come back to win on a two-run Holliday homer in the ninth. "He was dealing!" La Russa is smiling big. The Cardinals have won 30 of 39. Their cup runneth over.
Wednesday, Sept. 9
Adam Wainwright is an unusual pitching story for St. Louis. He has no haunted past. No muddled history. He just turned 28; he is 6'7"; he throws a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss curve. When he was called up to the Cardinals in 2006, he was so overpowering that La Russa and Duncan decided near season's end to make him the team's closer. Wainwright pitched nine times in the postseason and did not give up a run.
They moved him to the rotation in 2007, and he was good that year, better in 2008, and he has been about as good as Carpenter in 2009. For other teams this transition from successful big league reliever to successful starter can be tricky. The Yankees have had some trouble getting Joba Chamberlain to make the jump; Tampa Bay has had similar difficulties this year with David Price. Wainwright says the evolution was natural for him. "I pitch every game like it's the seventh game of the World Series," he says.
Wainwright has a 1--0 lead before he even kicks into the dirt. In the fifth Albert Pujols hits a two-run homer. In the seventh Pujols hits another home run, his 47th. Wainwright jogs through seven innings; only one Brewers player will reach third base. He wins his major-league-leading 18th game 5--1. This is the 10th consecutive series the Cardinals have won.
In the clubhouse jarringly soft music plays—coffeehouse music—while Spanish and English jokes crisscross the clubhouse. Clubbies pack everything up, but there's no real hurry, for tomorrow's an off day. A few players sit on the couch and watch San Diego's David Eckstein face San Francisco's Barry Zito on TV.
Wainwright is surrounded by reporters—a not unhappy place for him—and he tries to sum up the greatness of Albert: "I don't know how anyone could ever be better than he is. Ever. No offense to Henry Aaron and all those guys. Sorry, Hank."
And Tony La Russa? He just says that this team is special, these guys don't let the distractions distract. When asked about whether Carpenter or Wainwright should win the Cy, if Pujols is the runaway MVP, if this team has the stuff to win the World Series, he shakes his head and points toward the sky.