ST. LOUIS -- Adam Wainwright breezed through the Atlanta Braves' lineup like a pitcher in midseason form instead of a guy who had been out 2½ months.
An offense that racked up its most hits since the Gashouse Gang was in its prime made the return of their opening day starter a complete success.
"It wasn't fantastic, but it's something I can build on for sure, and I'm glad to be back out here, which is the main thing," Wainwright said after the St. Louis Cardinals' 18-3 romp on Friday night. "Anybody," he added, "could have pitched today."
Wainwright worked six dominant innings in his first start since early June, and Albert Pujols had three hits and three RBI for the Cardinals.
Their 26 hits was the franchise's most since another 26-hit game on Sept. 23, 1930, at Philadelphia, and their 21 singles was their most in a nine-inning game since July 6, 1929, in the second game of a doubleheader at Philadelphia, and two off the major league record by the Houston Astros in 1976.
"That team had some bad luck," Wainwright said of the Braves. "Everything that we hit fell. It was one of those nights where no matter what we did it was going to be right, and whatever they did was going to be wrong."
Wainwright (7-3) had been out with a sprained middle finger on his right hand. He added a career-high three hits and an RBI. The right-hander, who successfully lobbied against a fourth rehab stint earlier in the week, allowed five hits with four strikeouts and a walk.
"It was more than we should have expected, as far as command," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's hard to believe he could have been that sharp with that much time missed."
Pujols has had 100 RBI in each of his seven seasons, and is making a drive for eight straight with 32 RBI in 34 games since the All-Star break. He has 82 RBI with 32 games to go, 13 behind Ryan Ludwick, who singled twice and walked twice with an RBI.
The first five hitters were a combined 10-for-12 with seven walks and a sacrifice fly the first four times through the order, as the Cardinals pummeled rookie Charlie Morton (3-8) and two relievers for a 12-1 lead after five innings. Yadier Molina had four hits and four RBI, Cesar Izturis had four hits, Rick Ankiel had three RBI and Skip Schumaker had two hits and is 16-for-36 (.444) during an eight-game hitting streak.
Even pitcher Joel Pineiro, 4-for-43 on the year with 30 strikeouts, participated in the romp with an RBI double in the ninth off Julian Tavarez.
The outcome could have been a lot more lopsided, given the Cardinals left the bases loaded twice and stranded 13 runners while knocking the Braves a season-worst 17 games below .500.
"It was frustrating," Brian McCann said. "Definitely very, very, very frustrating. We've got to stop the way we're playing. It's just unacceptable."
Greg Norton hit his 11th career pinch homer and first this season, and McCann threw out consecutive runners attempting to steal in the third for the Braves, including Wainwright on a botched hit-and-run. But Morton retired only four of the 14 batters he faced while walking five.
"Nobody goes out there and tries to throw a ball, but when I tried to bear down I couldn't find it," Morton said. "It wasn't a thing where I couldn't believe I couldn't get them out, it wasn't anything like that."
The Cardinals had been on the fence whether to plug Wainwright, their opening day starter, into the rotation or as the closer. Rookie Chris Perez made the decision easier, going 4-for-4 in save situations since his call-up earlier this month, and the Cardinals ramped up Wainwright's pitch count during his rehab stint.
Wainwright justified the decision by breezing through a reeling lineup that has lost 11 of 12, needing only 72 pitches.
Wainwright, who lives in St. Simons, Ga., and was a first-round pick of the Braves in 2000, is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA in six career appearances against his old team.
"It's always a treat to pitch against them," Wainwright said.
Pineiro, bumped from the rotation to make way for Wainwright despite winning all three of his starts this month, allowed two runs and five hits the final three innings for his second career save.
The Cardinals placed former closer Jason Isringhausen on the 15-day disabled list with an elbow injury to make room for Wainwright.