Big moment at Shea prepared Cardinals' Adam Wainwright for Pirates in Game 5

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright celebrates after

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright celebrates after beating the Mets in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. (Oct. 19, 2006) (Credit: AP, 2006)

ST. LOUIS - Nearly seven years have passed since that career-shaping night at Shea Stadium.

Adam Wainwright can still hear the voices, still sense the desperation, still feel the venom that spilled out of the stands and nearly suffocated him on the pitcher's mound. Back then, before he had grown into the ace of the Cardinals, he was a kid just learning how to block it all out.

"I was hearing every fan in the stands, everybody who was booing me and cussing me," Wainwright said Tuesday on the eve of his start against the Pirates Wednesday night in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.

Under duress that night -- Game 7 of the 2006 NL Championship Series -- Wainwright came of age. He loaded the bases, then closed out the Mets, recording the final out on the most infamous curveball in Mets history. He froze future teammate Carlos Beltran with a perfect pitch, thrown only because he blocked out the noise.

"The bullpen in 2006 taught me so much," said Wainwright, who again has been entrusted to save his team's season. "I definitely would not be where I am today without that bullpen experience."

The Cardinals will need every ounce of Wainwright's playoff pedigree to shine through Wednesday night against the Pirates, whose first postseason run since 1992 hinges on talented rookie Gerrit Cole. It only seemed inevitable that the teams would arrive here. They played to a virtual draw in the regular season, with the Pirates holding only a slight 10-9 edge over the Cardinals, champions of the NL Central.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny described a "mutual respect" that has grown between the two teams. Pirates counterpart Clint Hurdle called the playoff meeting "a very respectful challenge series."

For the Pirates to advance, they must conquer the 32-year-old Wainwright, who has been unflappable while going 3-0 with a 2.94 in his 14 postseason games. In five career playoff starts, only once has Wainwright allowed more than one earned run.

But it was in his relief appearances in which Wainwright learned to handle the pressures of October. Back in 2006, Wainwright had just begun his apprenticeship in the bullpen, eventually taking over closing duties down the stretch. That's why it fell to Wainwright to slam the door shut on the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS.

It began poorly.

"The first two batters reached base because I was unable to avoid the distraction," said Wainwright, who found himself on the ropes in what would be the final playoff game at Shea Stadium.

With the stadium on the verge of coming unglued, Wainwright stepped off the mound to breathe, taking the advice passed down from veteran reliever and former Mets prospect Jason Isringhausen. It was then that Wainwright remembered seizing control of the situation, a moment that would stay with him for the rest of his career.

"I got back into my focus level, and then I was able to get outs," Wainwright said. "So that's the lesson that I learned in that big moment that I've taken forward."

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