Saturday's 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros may have confirmed more than it revealed for the Cardinals.
Allowed to carry a tie game through eight innings and then work out of his own ninth-inning jam, starting pitcher Adam Wainwright earned rare acknowledgement for a 26-year-old arm.
"He's a true No. 1," said catcher Jason LaRue, who in nine previous seasons handled pitchers for the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals. "I've only caught one legit No. 1 before, (Aaron) Harang in Cincinnati. But Adam's right there with him. He's got the stuff. He's got the intelligence and he's got the confidence. It's there."
Wainwright earned the recognition of his clubhouse after right fielder Skip Schumaker
rewarded his perseverance with a game-winning, one-out single against Astros lefthander Wesley Wright. Schumaker's third game-winning hit this season lifted the Cardinals to 15-10 in a game rife with messages.
The Astros reached Wainwright for three solo home runs, two by first baseman Lance Berkman after second baseman Kaz Matsui provided a fleeting 1-0 lead in the first inning.
The Cardinals replied against Astros ace Roy Oswalt by scoring three times in the third inning on first baseman Albert Pujols' two-run double and third baseman Troy Glaus' sacrifice fly.
Oswalt, the National League's winningest pitcher since 2004, lasted six innings before handing off after 117 pitches. Wainwright gave his bullpen the day off.
"That's all the guts you want to see. And it matches his talent," manager Tony La Russa said.
With 2005 Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter recovering from ligament transplant surgery, Wainwright essentially became the staff ace when appointed opening-day starter. Carpenter will reclaim the label around the All-Star break but at no cost to Wainwright's worth.
La Russa is reluctant to hang the label of "ace" or "No. 1" on pitchers, especially young ones. Pressed Saturday, the manager suggested anyone seeking the answer scrutinize Wainwright's innings pitched, the trust he is shown and the match-ups he receives.
"The answer's there," La Russa said.
Wainwright threw 126 pitches Saturday, most by a Cardinals starter since Jason Marquis threw 132 in a loss to San Diego on June 27, 2005. Saturday's win was also the Cardinals' first complete game since Wainwright suffered a 2-1 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers last Aug. 10. Only six pitchers in either league threw more pitches in a start last year. None has this season. Wainwright exited with a 3-1 record, 2.79 ERA and 21 quality starts in his last 29 appearances.
"To get that deep into it, it shows you not just what he's capable of, but the way he's been pitching ever since he's been on the team," La Russa said.
Wainwright returned to the ninth inning of a 3-3 game to face Matsui, shortstop Miguel Tejada and Berkman. He got two outs before pitching around Berkman and then also walking left fielder Carlos Lee. Wainwright threatened a third consecutive walk but escaped by getting right fielder Hunter Pence to strike out on a breaking pitch.
"Berkman had already beaten me twice today, and it just wasn't going to happen again," Wainwright said.
Wainwright's five starts cover 38 2/3 innings, with each outing lasting at least seven innings and two extending at least eight.
"I think they do have confidence in me," said Wainwright, who threw a staff-high 202 innings last season. "I'd like to think I've given them reason to do that. They have a lot of faith in me, and I have a lot of faith in them."
An early-inning exchange involved Wainwright after Oswalt brushed back Pujols in the first inning and grazed LaRue with a pitch in the second.
Benches and bullpens emptied after Wainwright threw behind Astros catcher Brad Ausmus leading off the third inning. Wainwright shook off LaRue several times before the pitch.
Ausmus started toward the mound before Astros manager Cecil Cooper interceded. The back-and-forth involved La Russa. LaRue later called it "just baseball." Wainwright's actions made it clear that any intimidation would be reciprocated.
"That's just two guys out there competing," Wainwright said. "You're trying to run the ball in, and maybe I ran it in a little too far."
"He's a great pitcher, but he's a warrior, too," catcher Yadier Molina said.
"He's always had talent. Anyone who watched him could see that," said Schumaker, the pitcher's teammate in Memphis in 2005 when Wainwright was 10-10 with a 4.40 ERA in a league-high 182 innings. "But you didn't see as much of the bulldog in him then as you do now. He's extremely confident out there. Anybody playing behind him sees it. In that way he's matured a lot."