Adam Wainwright didn’t contribute to the St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series championship last year because of reconstructive elbow surgery, making him all the more eager to help them defend it this fall.

Despite his team’s 3-2 loss in Game 1 of their National League Division Series on Sunday, the towering right-hander showed how he can dictate the course of a contest as he befuddled the Washington Nationals with his curveball for 52 / 3 innings.

Wainwright, who left the game with a 2-1 lead, became the first Cardinals starter to record 10 strikeouts in a playoff game since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the 1968 World Series against Detroit, and the first Cardinals pitcher to fan that many batters in less than six postseason innings.

The primary source of Wainwright’s strikeout figurewas his dominating off-speed pitches: Nine of the 10 batters he struck out fell prey to his curveball.

“It was a good pitch for me,” Wainwright said. “I wouldn’t say the other ones were all bad — that was working — that’s kind of who I am. I have a good curveball and there’s times where I overuse it. Tonight I felt like fastball command was not all there and you make adjustments.”

Wainwright struck out all but three Nationals starters — Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Kurt Suzuki — and finished with 100 pitches, 60 of them strikes.

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman fell victim to the curveball on two strikeouts.

“That’s the best I’ve seen Adam since before his Tommy John [surgery]. Not that he wasn’t good the last couple times,” Zimmerman said. “We faced him two times late in the year, so a lot of people were kind of saying he was getting tired. But that right there, that was the curveball he had before surgery.”

Should this series stretch to its full length, the Nationals would see Wainwright again for Game 5 in Washington.

As tough as his off-speed pitches were, Wainwright wasn’t infallible. He acknowledged that his fastball wasn’t on par with his expectations, limiting how he could mix up his offerings and elevating his pitch count.

Wainwright showed vulnerability when he walked Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez to load the bases in the second inning, though he escaped the incident unscathed. An eight-pitch walk of Suzuki in the sixth that put runners on first and second, however, chased Wainwright from the contest.

“I thought he fought and had a little bit of trouble early on making his pitches with his fastball, seemed like he wasn’t as fine as when he’s having his best game,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “His breaking ball really bailed him out today and kept them off-balance. . . .He made the pitches when he had to and kept us right there in his game.”