The door from the visiting bullpen swung open and Adam Wainwright walked through it, heart racing but mind steady.
Five months after being told he would have to wait until 2016 to go back to work, the St. Louis Cardinals ace relished the thought of beating the odds.
His one inning of work in his return from a torn left Achilles was unremarkable: one run and two hits in a mop-up role during an 8-2 loss to Pittsburgh in a doubleheader opener on Wednesday. The fact Wainwright was out there at all is nothing short of extraordinary.
The three-time All-Star figured his season was done when he limped out of the batter's box in Milwaukee on April 25, his left Achilles shredded. Yet there he was pumping fastballs in the eighth inning with an eye toward heading back to his familiar starting role when the playoffs start next week.
"That adrenaline rush, you can't mimic that in live (simulation) games and live BP," Wainwright said. "That's something that is only real-life, game action-type stuff and it's just so, so good to be back out there for sure."
Even Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle couldn't help himself after seeing Wainwright take the mound four months ahead of even the most optimistic projections.
"I actually caught myself clapping for him when he came running out of the bullpen," Hurdle said. "He's been special ever since he's been in the major leagues."
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny expects to use Wainwright in a high-leverage situation in Atlanta this weekend before penciling Wainwright back into the rotation for the postseason. Yet Wednesday was as much about the journey Wainwright has been on since April as much as the destination.
"Who thought he was going to be back? How many people told him that he wouldn't?" Matheny said. "That just says a lot about his character, about his drive, just what he brings to this team. It's a big deal."
One that should provide a boost to a team that already has the best record in the majors.
"It is a reinforcement," Matheny said. "Another one of our pillars being added to the mix. I don't think anybody understands, none of us understand, exactly how it's going to play out, what it's going to look like, what that role's going to be except that he's an active part of the team now."
And the only real good news on an afternoon the Cardinals saw their chances of taking a third straight NL Central title put on hold. Michael Wacha struggled through four innings, giving up a grand slam to Francisco Cervelli that gave Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole all the run support he would need.
Wacha (17-7) has 18 walks in his last 24 innings pitched.
"I just haven't been making pitches like I need to this past month," Wacha said. "I've got to figure something out and start competing a lot better out there."
Matt Carpenter hit a 435-foot homer that bounced into the Allegheny River for the Cardinals but St. Louis didn't muster much against Cole (19-8), who improved to 12-2 in September during his brief career.
Cardinals: To make room for Wainwright, St. Louis placed RHP Carlos Martinez on the 60-day disabled list with a right shoulder strain.
The Cardinals take another shot at wrapping up the division in Game 2 when they send out Tyler Lyons (2-1, 3.96) to face Morton (9-8, 4.54). Lyons has an ERA of 4.93 in seven starts this year and a 1.76 ERA in eight relief appearances. Morton is just 2-11 against St. Louis and hasn't beaten the Cardinals since April 4, 2011.