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Friday, April 25, 2008

Pineiro has a hand — and leg — in victory

PITTSBURGH — Two starts after returning to the Cardinals' rotation from a rehab assignment, Joel Pineiro finally arrived.

In a win that hinged offensively on his unexpected walk and peaked defensively by a ballet-like kick of a lined shot that is destined for highlight immortality, Pineiro also did a little of what he's paid for Thursday night.

"The pitching," manager Tony La Russa said. "Don't forget about the pitching. Of all of them, the pitching was the most important."

The righthander worked a superb seven innings, held Pittsburgh to one run and threw the Cardinals to a 6-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Though he came two innings shy of qualifying statistically, Pineiro — by arm, by kick and by not swinging his bat — defined his own complete game.

Pity more people didn't see it in person.

The victory split the series at Pittsburgh, which attracted a two-day total of 20,031 fans to PNC Park, sinking the Pirates below attendance sea level (aka the Florida Marlins) and making them now the lowest draw in baseball. Few were there to see several firsts for the Cardinals and more of the same from Albert Pujols.

Pujols reached base in all five of his plate appearances and drove in what would prove to be the game-winning run with a single in the fifth. He raised his major-league-leading on-base percentage to a gaudy .525, but he also had help. In his first game since returning from a rehab assignment, shortstop Brendan Ryan scored twice and singled twice. In his first start in right field, rookie Brian Barton drove in the Cardinals first runs.

All those firsts took second to Pineiro's first win.

The righthander was not only able to pitch deeper into the game than he had this season, but he also pitched better throughout the game than he had this season. Pineiro (1-2) missed most of spring training with shoulder soreness. When he surfaced quickly from a minor-league rehab assignment, he pitched like he needed refinement somewhere other than the majors.

On Thursday, his performance caught up to his level.

"I think it was just a matter of getting out there and pitching," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He had to get in the rhythm of pitching. I think physically he was fine, he just wasn't sharp."

Pineiro did not strike out a batter in his previous two starts, and he walked only one. Even if he got ahead of hitters, he didn't have the feel or the strength to put the at-bat away. Too often his pitch would veer up or over the middle of the plate. Or both. Against the Pirates, Pineiro was able to tap his full complement of pitches. He threw his fastball to both sides of the plate, and his breaking pitch set up six strikeouts.

Of the 26 batters Pineiro faced, 11 took a called Strike 1.

"Especially when I had them 0-1, 1-2 (in the count), I had a better pitch to finish them off," Pineiro said. "Whereas in the starts before they'd stay in the middle of the plate and they hurt me."

Said Pirates manager John Russell: "He wasn't missing."

After Adam LaRoche belted a run-scoring double to the left-center gap in the fourth inning, Pineiro retired 10 of the 11 batters he faced. That includes the one he did with cleat-kicking panache.

Freddy Sanchez led off the sixth inning with a line drive back at Pineiro. The righthander often kicks at grounders as if to make a lucky play, and this time … he did. The ball glanced off his right calf, arched into the air and dropped a few strides from the mound. Pineiro scampered to it, caught it on the fly and his throw beat Sanchez to first.

"The key was the luck," Pineiro said.

For style, he had the kick save. For substance, there was the pitching. Don't forget the pitching.

For surprise, he had the walk.

Pirates starter Tom Gorzelanny went twice through the Cardinals batting order and into the fifth inning without allowing a hit. Pineiro had pitched far more effectively, even allowed fewer base runners and, yet, was trailing 1-0 to a four-inning no-hitter. Karma had his back.

Pineiro was the fifth batter of the game Gorzelanny (1-3) walked, and the most inexcusable. Pineiro had struck out in five previous at-bats this season. Gorzelanny walked him on four pitches. The lefty then walked Ryan and Skip Schumaker to load the bases. Barton then stung a line drive over a leaping second baseman to score two runs and give Pineiro the deserved lead.

Pujols followed with his RBI single and the Cardinals did what they couldn't do in Wednesday's loss — add to their lead. The first of two doubles by Yadier Molina led to a couple runs in the sixth.

Throughout the mini series against Pittsburgh the Cardinals had failed to capitalize with runners on base. After taking a 4-0 lead in the first inning Wednesday, the Cardinals stranded eight base runners, four in scoring position. Gorzelanny's seven walks were the most by a Pirate pitcher since 2006, and he tiptoed out of trouble until Pineiro's walk. The Cardinals did leave the bases loaded in the seventh inning. But that was because Pineiro pitched well enough to stay in the game and take that at-bat.

He struck out, No. 6 in seven plate appearances.

He did enough to compensate.

"I've got to work on a lot of hitting out there, a lot of tee work that I need in the cage or something," Pineiro said. "My job is to go out there and pitch. My job is out on the mound."

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