ST. LOUIS -- Adam Wainwright, hardly short on significant, career-defining moments, placed Tuesday's shutout above them all.
The significance of the Cardinals' 4-0 win over the Padres wasn't just in the result. It was in the journey, one that took Wainwright from the high of a 20-win season to the low of season-ending elbow surgery and through the ripples of early-season good and bad.
And for the first time since learning he wouldn't pitch in 2011, Wainwright reminded himself of what he was and proved to everyone else what he still can be.
"I told [fellow starter] Jake [Westbrook], that might be the best feeling I've ever had pitching," said Wainwright, whose sensational performance came in front of a Busch Stadium crowd of 39,151. "I've done some things that are pretty fun, but I can never remember feeling that emotional after a game."
On a personal level, it was more significant than every previous step. That includes his 2005 Major League debut, as well as his momentous return to the mound this spring. It also topped being on the mound for the final outs of all three postseason series during the Cardinals' road to a World Series Championship in 2006.
That certainly provides considerable context.
"The emotion came from knowing that it's been over a year since I've done that, since I've really felt locked in on the mound like that," Wainwright said. "It was a huge sense of relief, huge sense of feeling blessed. I've worked very hard to get back to where I am. It's some acknowledgement to the hard work."
It was Wainwright's first nine-inning start since Aug. 6, 2010, when he pitched a two-hit shutout in Miami. It was only the third shutout of his career.
This season, Wainwright had yet to even go eight. He also hadn't been nearly this efficient, nor this dominant.
"He was controlling the fastball the way that he wanted to," catcher Yadier Molina said. "I think that was the difference. He threw that fastball inside, and that makes the breaking ball better."
Told of how emotional Wainwright was afterward, Molina said he was, as well. The two had shared a brief moment in conversation immediately after the last out, before Wainwright received a row of congratulations.
"Seeing the guy happy made me happy, too," Molina said. "He pitched a great game. I'm happy for him."
While one start isn't a sufficient enough sample size to know whether Wainwright is truly back, this performance was the biggest step forward he's had this season.
After averaging 16.8 pitches per inning through his first eight starts, Wainwright used only 111 pitches to secure the Cardinals a winning series over the offensively-challenged Padres.
He retired 16 of the game's first 17 batters, with the only interruption coming when Andy Parrino doubled with one out in the second. He gave up another double in the sixth and two singles after that. The four hits matched his season-low. His only walk came with two out in the ninth.
"He just had the look," manager Mike Matheny said. "You know, we saw him get closer and closer, and it's nice to have that kind of reward, that kind of outing from start to finish. That'll be one he's going to build on."
Wainwright maintained a quick pace, as well as a desired arm slot. The latter was something he had keyed on during his bullpen session over the weekend.
Wainwright also saved Matheny from enduring certain wrath by finishing the ninth inning with 14 pitches. Before heading out to pitch the ninth, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist told Wainwright he'd get as many as 15 before the bullpen would be called in to finish.
Indeed, Matheny confirmed afterward that Jesus Guzman, who grounded out to short with two on to end the game, was going to be Wainwright's last batter of the night.
"I tried to let the end of the game sneak up on me," Wainwright said. "I think there have been a lot of times this year looking up at the scoreboard, counting the innings. Tonight I wanted to pitch, and when the end of the game came, I wanted it to be a surprise."
The Padres entered the night hitting .220, the second-lowest team batting average in the Majors, and having averaged less than three runs per game this month.
"That was the Adam Wainwright I remember before he got hurt," Padres catcher John Baker said. "He was at the top of his game. He's one of the top pitchers in baseball, and I think he looked like that tonight for the first time this year."
The Cardinals' offense only mustered six hits, but they put Wainwright ahead, 1-0, in the first and tacked on three more runs late. Three of the four came off Padres starter Edinson Volquez.
Carlos Beltran recorded his 13th multi-hit game, as well as his sixth multi-RBI game, hitting from the cleanup spot. Just in front of him, Matt Holliday collected two hits, scored once and drove in one. Holliday also made a pair of impressive defensive plays.
Daniel Descalso, who came in when Matt Carpenter left with right side tightness in the first inning, scored twice, including on a sixth-inning bang-bang play at the plate in which he snuck his foot on the plate before Baker's tag.
The spotlight, though, shone solely on one.
"That was," as Matheny noted, "fun to watch today."
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.