WASHINGTON -- This, Adam Wainwright said, was what he lives for. This was his dream. To take the ball and start an elimination game was what baseball is all about.

Um, Wainwright felt a little bit different about it after the Nationals were just a single short of a cycle three batters into Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Friday night at Nationals Park. He felt a little different about it when he left the game with just one out in the third inning already down, 6-0. Wainwright had saved one of the worst performances of his career for one of the biggest moments.

The incredible Cardinals, of course, wrote a happy ending for the veteran right-hander by scoring four in the top of the ninth to win and advance to the NL Championship Series against the Giants.

Wild Card vs. Nationals

Then, and only then, could Wainwright join in the champagne-and-beer celebration and smile.

"It was the lowest I've ever felt in my career," Wainwright said. "And then, all of a sudden, it's one of the highest moments I've ever felt in my career. That's the great thing about playing on an amazing team. This really is a team where you go out there and have a terrible performance like I did, the rest of the team went out there and played hard and didn't give up."

"So I'm just so thankful that my team picked me up like that, because I was not ready to go home, and I was not ready to sit on that last start going into the offseason. You could use it as a huge motivation for next year, but I wasn't ready to do that just yet."

The Nats didn't waste any time attacking Wainwright in the bottom of the first. Jayson Werth led off with a booming double. Bryce Harper tripled to center. Ryan Zimmerman bashed a homer.

Wainwright settled down to strike out the side and got through the second allowing just a single, but the Nats were right back at him in the third. Harper homered, Zimmerman doubled and, with one out, Michael Morse homered. Manager Mike Matheny couldn't wait any longer and went to his bullpen.

Even general manager John Mozeliak was taken aback.

"At first you're almost just stunned," Mozeliak said. "Like, 'Really?' But as you keep inching your way back in, you always think you have a chance. Candidly, the first three innings of this game, being down 6-0, optimism was hard to find."

Said Wainwright: "The first inning, I left a few balls up, and they capitalized. You tip your cap. When I made a mistake, they hit them. Also tip your cap, because I made some good pitches and they hit those, too. They brought their sticks out today. They had a good game plan against me, and they executed perfectly. I didn't throw good, quality pitches. Facing a good lineup like that, if you don't throw good, quality pitches, they're going to burn you."

Out of the game, it's fair to guess that nobody was rooting harder for the Cards to come back than Wainwright was.

"I'm just so proud to be their teammate right now," he said. "So proud to be a St. Louis Cardinal. I went out there and had a terrible performance. And our team came out there and picked me up and picked the team up, fought hard against a very tough pitching staff and a very tough closer there at the end. So just a lot of heart and a lot of not giving up. We just keep proving it time and time again.

"You know, we were down, 6-0, to maybe a Cy Young pitcher in Gio Gonzalez. Amazing stuff that guy has over there. And we fought, and we battled hard and got in that bullpen. Just continued to take professional at-bats. That tough closer over there [Drew Storen] had us down to our last strike several times. Guys were patient, spitting on balls just off the plate, taking sliders in the dirt. Amazing."