The playoff chase will continue for another seven weeks, but for the first time since the wild-card standings have been relevant this season, the Cardinals are in position to be a wild card.
Cincinnati has run off to a seven-game lead that the Cardinals may not be able to erase in the National League Central Division. But the Redbirds finally have caught those pesky Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild-card spot, behind Atlanta. The Cards' 5-2 win over Arizona at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night evened the Cardinals' and Pirates' records at 64-53 with 45 games remaining, six of them against each other, including three here this weekend.
A wild-card berth isn't necessarily what teams strive for, but it was the right path for the Cardinals in the autumn of last year.
"The goal is to catch everybody," Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig said. "It took us a while to get there but we're playing pretty good baseball right now."
Adam Wainwright (11-10), who gained his fourth straight win, said, "I feel eventually Cardinal baseball will catch up to the rest of the teams out there."
Manager Mike Matheny said Wainwright, whom he pulled after six innings, didn't possess his best fastball and location.
"Today he didn't have it and found a way to pitch without it," Matheny said.
Wainwright agreed, saying, "I wasn't as sharp as I had been. But I didn't miss too many times over the plate tonight. Early on, I knew I was going to have to make some adjustments.
"Tonight I had average to slightly below average fastball command but my off-speed (stuff) was pretty good."
David Freese snapped a nothing-for-20 slump with a two-run homer, his 16th, on a 2-0 pitch from Arizona's Joe Saunders and Allen Craig launched another 2-0 Saunders pitch for his 18th homer.
The big hit, though, was a two-run, two-out triple in the sixth inning by a revitalized Rafael Furcal, who had been hitting about .200 since the end of May but has had two triples and a double in his last two games.
Newcomer Edward Mujica, seizing the seventh-inning opportunity offered him by Matheny, worked the seventh for the Cardinals for the seventh time on Thursday. In that time, Mujica has pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings — he had a perfect seventh on Wednesday — and achieved six "holds."
"I've been very pleased with what Edward's done," Matheny said. "I don't know how you couldn't be.
"That's been a thorn in our side — that seventh inning. I hope we don't have to call him for any inning but the seventh."
Mujica, acquired last month from Miami, said, "I just get ready after the fifth. When the phone rings and (bullpen coach Dyar) Miller says the name, I just go out there and start warming up."
The two other sides of the Cardinals' late-inning triangle, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte, also rolled through the Diamondbacks. Boggs fanned two in a spotless eighth and Motte, possessing now the important 'second" pitch of a cutter/slider to go with his high 90s mph fastball, gained his 27th save, in 31 opportunities, with a perfect ninth.
Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt walloped his 17th homer on the first pitch he saw from Wainwright in the fourth to break the scoreless deadlock.
It wasn't just any homer. Measured at 456 feet, the blast was the longest struck by an opposing player at Busch Stadium in its seven-season existence.
The longest homer by a Cardinal was by Matt Holliday at 469 on July 20 of this year off Chicago's Ryan Dempster.
The Diamondbacks' lead was short-lived, though. Carlos Beltran doubled to left with one out in the bottom of the fourth and Freese ended his drought by homering into the visitors' bullpen for a 2-1 Cards lead. Freese's homer was his first since July 31, at Colorado. The All-Star third baseman had led the majors with a .458 average in July but had been six for 44 (.136) with only one extra-base hit for August before his homer.
"I'll be honest. It felt good," Freese said. "I see it as a compliment when the media's wondering about my power numbers because I didn't know I was supposed to hit a bunch of homers."
Then, Craig gave Wainwright a two-run cushion with a 406-foot homer in the Cardinals' fifth on a pitch that Wainwright thought was just "three inches off the dirt. It goes five rows up in right center. How talented is he?" Wainwright asked.
Craig, who has 60 RBIs in 75 games, said he didn't think the ball was a strike.
"But I like the ball down," he said. "I feel confident hitting pitches that are down."
While impressed with Craig's opposite-field smack, Freese said, "I'm not amazed anymore with what he's done. We all know that guy can flat-out hit."
The D'backs tested Wainwright in the sixth when Aaron Hill and Jason Kubel singled with nobody out. Center fielder Jon Jay, chasing Kubel's hit, made a nifty barehanded snag of a ball that appeared it would hop past him, to keep Kubel at first and the double play in order. Wainwright induced Goldschmidt to roll an 0-2 pitch into that double play started by third baseman Freese. Hill scored but the Cardinals still led, 3-2.
Furcal tripled, for the second time in two nights, in the sixth. The hit scored Daniel Descalso and Tony Cruz, who had singled with two out against Saunders and the win was Wainwright's.
"I didn't think it would take me 4½ to five months for me to get back to .500 (or) one game over," said Wainwright, who acknowledged he was "disappointed" not to be slated to face Pittsburgh in either upcoming series between the teams. "But I'm also confident that these other guys can go out and beat them, too."
Arizona, which had reported early to Busch Stadium for afternoon drills Wednesday, including some concentration on bunt coverage that was problematic the night before, dipped under .500 after having made a recent run at Western Division leaders Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, tied their season best of 11 games over .500 with their 19th win in their last 24 home games.
"When these guys (his players) have got it going, it's fun to watch," Matheny said. "You wonder how we've stayed away from doing it on a consistent basis, but we've had a nice little run."