Wainwright is the third pitcher to win 20 games in baseball this season, joining the Yankees' CC Sabathia and the Phillies' Roy Halladay. There weren't any 20-game winners last season, though Wainwright was one of four pitchers with 19 wins.
"I certainly never thought I would do it," said Wainwright. "In the Minor Leagues, when you looked at the guys who won 20, they were just on a different level. It's something I'll never forget, and it's something I'm glad I got to share with this team. There's a lot of hard work that goes into that, and a good bullpen that saves most of those games for me. I couldn't do it by myself.
"It's amazing company," said Wainwright. "I'm very blessed to be in the conversation."
Wainwright's 39 wins over the past two years is the most by a Cardinals pitcher in consecutive seasons since Matt Morris won 39 in 2001-02.
Chris Carpenter was the last Cardinals pitcher to win 20
games in a season, going 21-5 in 2005, on his way to the Cy Young Award.
"The way you win 20 is the way he's done it and some of these other guys have done it," said La Russa. "When it's their game, they go deep. If they don't go nine, they go eight. If they don't go eight, they go seven. If you're down to six outs, the game is really in your hands."
Wainwright, 20-11, gave up a homer to Chicago's Aramis Ramirez leading off the second, but otherwise kept the Cubs at bay. He allowed one run on six hits and struck out seven, winning his third decision in his past four starts. With his seven strikeouts, he moved into a tie with Halladay atop the NL with 213 punch-outs.
"I had very good command today," said Wainwright. "You never know what that wind is going to do and it was just howling out. I just used it to my advantage, really. I was able to move the ball around.
"I knew early on that I had to keep the ball on the ground, because I could tell right away guys were going to try to jump ship on me, and rightfully so. If you hit a fly ball today, that wind had a good chance to take it out."
Last season, Wainwright dropped a decision to Milwaukee in his final start, his only opportunity for a 20th win. In that game, he departed with a 6-1 lead after allowing back-to-back singles in the top of the seventh inning. He bequeathed the two baserunners to reliever Kyle McClellan, who proceeded to give up three hits, a walk, four runs and a wild pitch, surrendering the lead and eventually taking the loss. On Friday, it was again McClellan that came on for Wainwright, this time with a six-run lead. There was no trouble this time around, as McClellan cruised through two scoreless innings.
"I was glad that Kyle got to get in there to sort of wipe the slate clean," said Wainwright. "I know he feels really bad about what happened last year. He pitched two great innings today, like he has all year. When you win it, that's cool, but if you're sitting on 19 and you know you did everything you could and he did everything he could, you can never second guess anybody."
After the game, La Russa sounded as happy for McClellan as he did for Wainwright.
"Last year, when he left with the lead, we went to Kyle and he came out and struggled," said La Russa. "This year, he came out and got six outs. That was huge. It shows you how far he's come.
"All the guys are playing hard. They wanted it for [Adam]. This is a real achievement."
Allen Craig's three-run homer in the first sparked the offense, which jumped on Cubs starter Tom Gorzelanny for seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. Craig wasn't originally in the Cardinals' starting lineup, but found himself in right field and batting fifth after Nick Stavinoha was scratched with a sore knee. Stavinoha did get into the game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth.
"It happened pretty quick," said Craig. "I found out right before batting practice that I was going to start. I just happened to get in there in the five spot trying to make something happen after Albert [Pujols] and Matt [Holliday]. I was just glad I could help the team get a quick start.
"You never really know in baseball. Stuff happens, and you just have to be ready."
La Russa shrugged when asked about the verisimilitude of the lineup switch, saying it could just as well have been Stavinoha who gave the Cards their early spark.
"We've got enough depth on the club where we can make some things happen," said La Russa.
Pujols walked three times and scored two runs. He's now five walks from reaching 100 free passes for the third consecutive season. He also stole his 13th base of the season, most on the Cardinals. Pujols singled in the ninth, the only time he put the ball in play in five plate appearances, raising his batting average to .310.
The Cardinals raced out to an early lead thanks to a take-and-rake approach at the plate. In the first, Pujols walked. Holliday singled, moving Pujols to second and extending his hitting streak to 16 games. Both scored on Craig's three-run shot into the left-field bleachers. St. Louis added a run in the second on back-to-back doubles by Brendan Ryan and Wainwright, who picked up his sixth RBI of the season with the hit, matching his career high.
In the third, Pujols and Holliday walked to begin the inning. Pujols stole third and scored when Craig bounced into a double play. Pedro Feliz reached on a two-out infield single, then scored when rookie catcher Matt Pagnozzi doubled to the wall in right-center. The Cardinals tacked on another run in the fourth. Aaron Miles singled, then Colby Rasmus and Pujols walked, loading the bases, and sending Gorzelanny to the showers. Cubs reliever Justin Berg came on to strike out Holliday. But pinch-hitter Jon Jay drew the third walk of the inning to force in Miles, giving the Redbirds a 7-1 lead.
McClellan and Ryan Franklin came on to finish off the win, with three innings of drama-free relief, giving Wainwright his milestone decision. The Cardinals' righty couldn't have picked a more appropriate venue for his 20th win, except of course for Busch Stadium.
"It's always fun to pitch at Wrigley, but to beat the Cubs for your 20th win is an extra treat," Wainwright said.
So the Cardinals got to revel in accomplishment for a few hours, armed with the knowledge that a well-liked teammate reached a goal and that no matter what the Reds do against the Padres, they can't clinch the division today. The playoff hopes, however slim, live at least one more day.
"My team gave me a beer shower after the game," said Wainwright. "The team continues to impress me, to make me feel wanted. They've made me feel at home here. There's not a better bunch of guys to share this with."