MILWAUKEE -- Adam Wainwright's road to recovery hit its endpoint on Saturday, when, shortly after 3 p.m. CT, he took the Miller Park mound.
His first pitch since 2010 was outside the strike zone, and his last of the day was crushed to cushion Milwaukee's lead. But in between, Wainwright gave every indication that he is not just back, but that he is very much the same pitcher he was before right elbow surgery cost him a full season.
Consider this the Cardinals' consolation on a day when Zack Greinke dazzled the home crowd of 42,084 in leading the Brewers to a 6-0 win. The loss was St. Louis' first this season.
"If he pitches like that," first baseman Lance Berkman said, "he's going to win 20 games."
Berkman wasn't talking about Greinke.
Saturday wasn't the first time Wainwright's teammates had seen their co-ace healthy and effective. He had proven both all throughout spring. But this had a different feel, even though Wainwright said he was able to pitch without nerves or butterflies.
For the first time in more than 18 months, Wainwright took the mound in a game that counted. And as much as he downplayed his anticipation for Saturday, this was an especially big deal.
"I'm back out there pitching again," Wainwright said following the 5 2/3-inning outing. "It's just another step towards getting back to being a great big league pitcher like I know I can be."
Added manager Mike Matheny: "It's going to be fun to watch him."
No doubt there is still room for improvement. But given the circumstances, all involved seemed pleased. And the other side, impressed.
"For his first outing in a few years, that was actually pretty impressive," said Corey Hart, who accounted for two of the three homers Milwaukee had on Saturday. "He commanded and did what he wanted to do. His velocity, I'm sure, is going to go up. But where he was at was really effective."
Through five innings, Wainwright gave up two hits, the only costly one a homer by Hart in the second. His efficiency improved after using 36 pitches to get through the first two innings, and that was largely the result of improved command.
Wainwright struck out six -- all swinging, the first four on fastballs, the last two with his signature curve -- and retired 12 of 13 immediately after Hart's blast.
"I saw the great pitcher that he was, [even with] the velocity not what he used to pitch at," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's incredible that a guy can pitch at lower velocity and still do whatever he wants to do. He is really impressive. This is a true, legitimate No. 1 starter."
The velocity of Wainwright's fastball, which sat mostly in the 88-90 mph range, was similar to that which was seen during Wainwright's spring starts. Matheny refuted any concern, saying that he was transfixed more with how hitters reacted to Wainwright's pitches than what the radar gun read.
With Wainwright's pitch count steadily rising, it appeared as if the fifth was set to be his final inning of work. He took the mound having already thrown 66 pitches, but earned himself a deeper start by breezing through the bottom third of Milwaukee's order in just five pitches.
"There was no way I was expecting to come out of the game right there," Wainwright said.
Matheny concurred. Though his bullpen was already stirring, the Cardinals' manager -- without reservation, he said afterward -- let Wainwright bat for himself in the top of the sixth and then return to the mound in the bottom half of the frame.
Wainwright couldn't complete that final inning.
A leadoff single and mistimed throw to second baseman Daniel Descalso, who raced to cover first as Wainwright fielded a bunt, allowed the first two Milwaukee batters to reach. Matheny didn't emerge from the dugout, sticking with Wainwright as last year's National League Most Valuable Player Award winner came to bat.
Wainwright induced a double play from Ryan Braun to get within an out of escaping the inning unscathed. Aramis Ramirez had other plans, and his RBI double off the center-field wall put the Brewers ahead, 2-0, and ended Wainwright's afternoon on his 88th pitch.
"I'm in position to get out of that inning and leave the game 1-0," said Wainwright. "I felt great the last inning I pitched there. I think that was the next step."
Wainwright hadn't thrown more than 75 in an outing all spring, though the jump in pitch count didn't appear to be accompanied by any fatigue.
"I wasn't alarmed by anything we saw," Matheny said. "I thought he got better as he went."
Wainwright's final line included three earned runs allowed, as Victor Marte served up a two-run blast to Hart immediately upon relieving Wainwright.
After scoring 11 times on Friday and combining for 29 hits in their first two games of the year, the Cardinals were held to four singles by Greinke. David Freese had two. St. Louis did not advance a runner past second during Greinke's seven-inning start or the two innings that followed.
The outing came on the heels of a tremendous spring showing by the Brewers righty, who allowed only two earned runs in his first five spring starts (19 1/3 innings). He is now 12-0 in his 17 career appearances at Miller Park.
"He was outstanding today," Berkman said. "We faced him a few times last year, and this was as good as I've seen him in terms of the late movement and the location. It's just one of those days where we don't read too much into it. We ran into a really good starter. Tip your hat and move on."
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.