ST. LOUIS -- Already a two-time World Series champion, Adam Wainwright spoke of grander plans as the St. Louis Cardinals began their quest for 11 October wins. His dream, he said, was to be a part of a dynasty, to "make this one of the golden eras of Cardinal baseball."
How history looks back on these Cardinals will come with time, but Wainwright delivered the performance the Cards needed on Wednesday to keep their pursuit of another deep October run alive. For the third straight year -- and eighth time since the turn of the century -- St. Louis will play for the National League pennant.
With the support of another elimination-game home run from David Freese and stingy defense behind him, Wainwright pitched the Cardinals to a 6-1 win over a Pirates team that had pestered them all season. It was the third victory the Cards needed to move out of the NL Division Series and on to a NL Championship Series showdown with the Dodgers.
"These guys fight," second baseman Matt Carpenter said of his teammates as they celebrated afterward. "That's been our motto all season. That's the Cardinals motto. We never give up. We're never down. We keep fighting until that last out is made."
The first game of that best-of-seven set against L.A. will come Friday on TBS, back inside Busch Stadium, which was filled by 47,231 for Wednesday's win-or-go-home game. But before the Cardinals turned their attention to the Dodgers, they soaked in a celebration. And before that celebration could commence, they had to wait for the ace who had just made the defining postseason start of his career.
A circle formed in the home clubhouse while Wainwright wrapped up obligatory on-field interviews. Champagne was prepped to be uncorked. When Wainwright arrived, he briefly tipped his hat. His teammates then asked him to offer a few words. Wainwright paused.
"I don't know what to say right now," he finally offered. "I'm at a loss for words. I love you guys. I trust you. I believe in you. Let's bring this thing home."
Wainwright was then at the center of the celebration that ensued, just as he had been at the center of the night.
"Very special," said Wainwright's batterymate, Yadier Molina. "It's unbelievable to catch him. It's unbelievable to be his friend."
After leading the Majors with five complete games during the regular season, Wainwright needed no relief in this one. All he needed was a lift, and it came early with one swing by his third baseman.
Having sputtered through a subpar season that saw his power numbers drastically dip, Freese turned on an inside curveball from stud Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole in the second inning and deposited it in the visiting bullpen. The home run, which followed an eight-pitch, two-out walk to Jon Jay, provided an early two-run cushion that never would be threatened by Pittsburgh.
"In my mind," Wainwright said, "I'm just thinking that's all we need."
Freese had entered the night 2-for-13 in the series but already with a decorated October resume that now looks a little more impressive. With the home run, Freese sits third in franchise history in postseason home runs (seven), RBIs (29) and multihit games (10). Only Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds have better numbers in the trio of offensive categories.
"He's something else," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's a big-game player. He's a winning player."
The lead would be padded by Jay, whose two-out single off lefty reliever Justin Wilson in the sixth matched the number of hits the Bucs tallied off Wainwright in the first five innings. Matt Adams' 408-foot home run off Mark Melancon later punctuated a three-run eighth that eliminated any potential ninth-inning suspense.
It also set off the crowd in an early celebration.
"When we were talking the other day about playing in Pittsburgh, and playing in that environment, these guys love that," general manager John Mozeliak said. "They thrive in it. Tonight was no different. They just happen to be the home team. I think playing in front of a full house always energizes this club. In terms of why do we have success? I think these guys just embrace it and don't fear it."
Wainwright improved to 4-0 in the postseason and had bookend wins in this series between division rivals. His dominant outing also atoned for his abbreviated start in Game 5 of the NLDS last season against Washington. The Cardinals won that elimination game despite Wainwright's rough 2 1/3-inning start.
Wainwright, the undisputed ace of St. Louis' staff, didn't allow Pittsburgh to push a runner into scoring position until the seventh, when a pair of two-out infield singles brought Cards killer Pedro Alvarez to the plate as the potential tying run. Alvarez drove home his seventh run of the series when his grounder caromed off first and over Adams.
But Carpenter, who was defensively shifted into right field, dove to stop the ball from trickling further down the line and allowing a second run to score. Wainwright then snuffed out the threat by getting Russell Martin to ground out on his 88th pitch of the night. He fanned Alvarez in the ninth with runners on first and second to complete the gem.
"Every time we turned around, Wainwright got in the way tonight," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Obviously, this club here, the St. Louis Cardinals organization has gotten used to this. The sustainability is what separates great organizations."
Wainwright went the distance with just 107 pitches, 74 of which were strikes. He now has the unique distinction of having closed a postseason clincher as both a reliever (Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS) and a starter. It marked the first postseason complete game by a Cardinals pitcher since Chris Carpenter shut out Philadelphia in 2011, also in the NLDS.
"What a horse," Freese said. "He's the guy we want on the bump, and he did what he wanted to do. Just a tremendous job."
Wainwright was quick to credit his infield defense, too, for aiding him en route to an efficient and effective outing.
Carpenter started a double play in the second by stretching out to glove Alvarez's line drive to right. In the fourth, Pete Kozma -- making his third straight start at shortstop -- made a diving catch on Neil Walker's leadoff liner up the middle. It was the first of three double plays turned by the middle infielders in the game.
Kozma then closed that 1-2-3 fourth inning by going deep in the hole at short to snag Justin Morneau's grounder and throw him out.
"I don't think I've ever had two plays like that in the same inning," Kozma said. "I think we're that much more ready when [Wainwright] is in there because he's going to throw strikes, and those guys are going to put it in play."
"We had to have everything working today," added Matheny.
With the win, the Cardinals improved to 7-1 in their last eight final-and-deciding postseason series games. Each of their now three straight trips to the NLCS has been sealed with a Game 5 win. This was the first of those to come at home.
"It doesn't matter if you have been in the playoffs one time or 10 times," said Carlos Beltran, still playing for his first World Series berth. "It really doesn't get old."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.