St. Louis jumped on Washington starter Taylor Jordan, who had no shot at dueling with Wainwright as his defense struggled behind him. Four errors and other plays not made compounded innings for the Nationals and became opportunities seized by the Cardinals, who, behind their ace, cruised to an 8-0 win in front 28,987 fans.
The victory was the third in four games for a St. Louis club in the midst of an 11-game, three-city road swing.
"You give him that kind of stuff with his sense and with Yadi [Molina] back there, his instincts on how to use it, man, it makes for a fun day for us to watch," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "He just did it all. That's what your ace does."
That included Wainwright tallying two hits -- as many as the Nationals had off him -- and reaching base in each of his final four plate appearances. He doubled in his ninth-inning at-bat.
Wainwright was brilliant in the win, the seventh shutout of his career. After a second-inning infield hit by Ian Desmond, only three more baserunners reached. Two were issued walks, one of which was intentional. Adam LaRoche spoiled Wainwright's bid for his first career one-hitter with a two-out single in the ninth.
Over the rest of the night, Wainwright (3-1) put on a clinic of unpredictability, one of his spoken season goals. Believing he had become too reliant on the curveball as an out pitch in 2013, Wainwright wanted to make sure to leave hitters guessing more.
On Thursday, he was a puppeteer.
"I think if you do something different every time, they really don't know what to expect," said Wainwright, now 3-0 against Washington since his early exit at Nationals Park in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. "Stay with your strengths first and then mix it up after that. They have big, strong guys who can do some damage, so it was important for me to live on the edges a little bit more and throw good quality pitches tonight."
"Waino has been around for a long time," added Molina. "The other team has a pretty good idea what Waino brings to the table. That's what makes Waino good, because he can do different things in different at-bats. One at-bat, he can get you out with a curveball. The other at-bat, he can get you out with a cutter. He's hard to hit that way."
That was especially true on Thursday since Wainwright had all four of his pitches working for the first time this season. That included the cutter, which had been slow to come around since leaving Spring Training.
"Days like today, you can tell he knew, or probably knew, that guys were sitting on certain pitches at certain times," Matheny said. "And he would either take a little off or just stretch the zone a little bit. When you're able to be that fine, it's one of those rare days. He has them more than most people, but still it's hard to have a day like that very often against such a good offensive team."
Wainwright's ability to go the distance with 110 pitches gave the bullpen a welcome respite. It also put Wainwright into rare company as he became the 16th pitcher in Major League history to begin a season with four straight starts of at least seven innings and seven strikeouts.
As smooth as things went for him, the game turned chaotic when roles reversed. The Nationals' defense was shaky from the get-go. Shortstop Desmond opened the game with a fielding error, and Kolten Wong followed with a lazy grounder that Jordan fielded but then couldn't grip. The fumble gave Wong enough time to reach.
Each of the next three batters collected an RBI to stake the Cardinals to the quick, 3-0, lead.
Help was aplenty again in the fourth. Jhonny Peralta likely would have been thrown out at second had Danny Espinosa not dropped a throw from Bryce Harper. On the next ball put in play, Desmond skipped his throw past first to allow Jon Jay to reach. Jay then slid safely into second when Espinosa lost his grip while transferring the ball from his glove after taking a flip from Desmond.
A play that in the past often counted as an out is now part of a transfer rule being more strictly enforced since the implementation of expanded replay. Nationals manager Matt Williams argued for the out, but he opted not to use his challenge after his video coordinator determined the replay to be inconclusive.
Peralta scored on the play.
"We handed that to [Wainwright] on a tee, me especially," Desmond said. "You can't give a pitcher that caliber any type of leeway and show any kinks in the armor, and right off the bat they just stepped on our throats."
The Cardinals plated three more in the sixth with two-out RBI hits by Matt Holliday and Matt Adams after loading the bases without hitting a ball out of the infield. The Nationals committed their fourth error of the night in the eighth -- Jayson Werth appeared to lose a fly ball in the lights. It was Washington's first four-error game since 2011.
"That's a good team, and every team has the possibility of that happening to them at any particular time," Matheny said. "It's just one of those days that you want to get over with and move forward because that's a very good athletic team."
Though the Nationals set the visitors up for a big offensive night, credit the Cardinals for capitalizing. They had eight hits with runners in scoring position and at least one hit from each of their starting nine.