"I thought that was as good as he's been this season," manager Mike Matheny said. "He came out in the first, and established all his pitches and had great life. His curveball was as sharp as we've seen it, and that made a difference. That set the tone."
The Cardinals parlayed Wainwright's strong start and another barrage of extra-base hits into a series win in Chicago. As the club packed to head to Milwaukee, both clubhouse TVs were tuned into an extra-inning game in Pittsburgh. When the D-backs scored the go-ahead runs on Andrew McCutchen's missed catch, the Cardinals' clubhouse erupted.
That's because St. Louis now trails first-place Pittsburgh by only one game.
"It's fun to be a fan and watch," said Jon Jay, who paced the offense with a four-RBI day.
Stuck on 13 wins since July 21, Wainwright -- who trails only Clayton Kershaw, the favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, in innings pitched this season -- snapped a personal winless streak of four to become the NL's second 14-game winner. He gave up just two hits -- both infield singles -- before a brief hiccup in the sixth cost him a shutout.
A two-out walk to David DeJesus and subsequent RBI double from Junior Lake was all that kept the Cubs from being held scoreless for the sixth time in their past eight home games.
"He's always good," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Nothing overpowering, he just knows how to pitch."
Lake's hit could have been a game-tying one had he not committed a costly two-base error earlier in the afternoon. On Tuesday, Starling Marte's missed catch on a routine fly ball opened the door for the Cardinals to defeat the Pirates in extra innings, and Lake's gaffe on a similarly hit fly ball led to two gift runs in the third.
Consecutive doubles by Yadier Molina and Jay preceded the error, which allowed Kolten Wong to jog into second instead of being the inning's second out. Matt Carpenter helped the Cards capitalize when, after an intentional walk and flyout, he delivered a two-run single.
The hit improved Carpenter to 6-for-8 with 18 RBIs in bases-loaded opportunities this season.
"When you have Waino on the mound, any time you get a chance to score and give him that comfortable lead, we want to do that," Carpenter said. "I was able to get a pitch I could handle, put a good swing on it and hit it up the middle."
Jay later cushioned the Cardinals' lead with a three-run homer off lefty James Russell, but it was insurance Wainwright didn't need. He ended his start with three consecutive strikeouts after allowing singles to the first two batters he faced in the seventh. Wainwright finished with 11 strikeouts, a total he has reached twice this season.
He also passed Bob Forsch to assume fourth place on the Cardinals' all-time strikeout list with 1,081. Wainwright will soon leapfrog Chris Carpenter and Dizzy Dean, as well, which will leave him only behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who struck out 3,117 during his 17-year Cardinals career.
"Each person I pass just means I'm a little bit older," Wainwright said. "It's actually quite an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as those pitchers."
The win was Wainwright's first against the Cubs since September 2010, but also pushed him to 6-0 in his career at Wrigley Field. He joins Ron Perranoski, Vida Blue and Bobby J. Jones as the only Major League pitchers to win their first six decisions at the 99-year-old ballpark.
The quality start comes after Wainwright had been knocked around for 13 earned runs in his past 28 innings. The Cardinals won just one of the four games during that stretch.
"There were a lot of different things that could have been better over the last month or so," Wainwright said. "Today was a day that I felt like I was going to go out there and pitch well, because I was finally comfortable with a lot of different stuff I was doing."
He also had longtime batterymate Molina back to guide him. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Cardinals are 3-0 in Molina's starts since coming off the disabled list.
"I'm just happy to get him back on track," Molina said. "The last couple of starts for him have been tough. I was happy to get that one for him."
Molina noted that getting Wainwright back to attacking hitters was key. Wainwright threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 26 batters he faced.
The Cardinals closed the series with a resurgence from the offense after being shut out Friday. Since then, a team that had just 25 extra-base hits in 11 games has tallied five in each of its past two. Molina, who doubled twice on Sunday, has four of them.
Jay's two-hit day pushed his hit total in August to an NL-high 26. He has eight multihit games this month and has seen his average climb from .253 to .273.
"We've called him a streaky hitter in the past. I don't think that's real fair," Matheny said. "I think he's a legitimate real good hitter, and there's no reason why that consistency shouldn't be there for full seasons."
Jay added that recent mechanical tweaks with hitting coach John Mabry have been a factor in his rebound.