Pineiro saves his best for last

Pineiro saves his best for last

NEW YORK -- Cardinals backup catcher Kelly Stinnett had never caught Joel Pineiro before Thursday night, though he'd always been something of an admirer from afar. Stinnett had glimpsed Pineiro's sheer ability with the Mariners, and he'd seen flashes of greatness in two months with the Cards.

Stinnett had also seen that ability go to waste, that "stuff" -- the gold standard by which all pitchers are measured -- never quite live up to its hype. And as a man who makes his living catching all sorts of stuff, Stinnett never quite understood the problem.

"I always thought he had really good stuff," Stinnett said. "Sometimes you wonder how guys like that get hit."

Perhaps, he'll always wonder. Pineiro saved his best start for the last game of the season, throwing eight shutout innings against one of the National League's most potent offenses and leading the Cardinals to a 3-0 victory in a makeup game at Shea Stadium.

"I got to experience the other end of it tonight," Stinnett said. "He was lights-out."

Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca called him a "buzzsaw," and that's no stretch. For four innings, the only batter to reach base off Pineiro was NL MVP candidate David Wright, and the Mets didn't fare much better in the next four innings, either.

By the time Pineiro finished, the Mets had mustered just three hits and a walk. And as much as the right-hander wanted his shot at a complete game -- he threw just 93 pitches -- he was admittedly gassed. So Pineiro decided to be honest about it, and rather than risk a meltdown in the ninth inning, the righty entrusted closer Jason Isringhausen to save his gem.

Though with Isringhausen, that doesn't exactly require much trust.

"If I don't have my best stuff going into the ninth inning, let the big guy come in," Pineiro said. "In my heart, I felt like I could go back out there, but I was kind of tired. That's why I said get the big guy in there, and let's get ourselves a win."

The Cards' lineup constructed the other half of that victory much earlier in the game, finding all the offense it needed off Pedro Martinez in the first, when Skip Schumaker singled home a run. Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick each drove in a run two innings later -- not that it mattered.

In this game, any whiff of offense would have stood up.

Perhaps that's been the norm around Shea these days, but Pineiro wasn't about to rely on recent history. So what if the Mets were in danger of a near-historic collapse. He was pitching for the future, even while the Mets were focused on the present.

Pineiro cited this as one of the rare nights on which he had all four of his pitches going for him, with his changeup working overtime. His primary goal, he said, was to keep each and every leadoff hitter off base. Pineiro succeeded seven times. His secondary goal, he said, was to make sure Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo -- chaos, neatly disguised as middle infielders -- didn't even approach first base. Those two went a combined 0-for-8.

"My mindset was that I needed to keep the first two guys off base," Pineiro said. "Because then they start the bunting and the running and the stealing, and that's their game. So I kind of kept them off their game before the big guys came up with runners on base. That was huge."

And while the Mets may have needed this game more -- they're now tied with the Phillies for the NL East lead after leading the race by seven games earlier this month -- the Cardinals wanted it just as much. The last time Pineiro pitched, he lost, and his team was officially eliminated from postseason contention.

So for the Cards, Thursday night became their postseason.

"It almost felt like a pennant game out there, even though we're not in it," Pineiro said. "But it felt like one of those games that we needed to win."

Pineiro, at the least, needed it for his future. The Cardinals had given him a second chance this season, after the Red Sox converted him into a reliever and he never quite took to that role. So every start down the stretch had become something of an audition, and Pineiro passed the most arduous test with his highest marks yet.

His contract with the Red Sox had a mutual option for next season, but unfulfilled incentives have since voided that opportunity. So come this offseason, he'll be a free agent, with one sizeable September stamp on his resume.

"I'm thankful for the Cardinals giving me the chance to start again, and I'm proving it," Pineiro said. "Everybody's watching. I'm going to be happy, and whatever team I'm with is going to be happy."

Based on Thursday's performance, the Cardinals would certainly hope to be that team. But the future is typically littered with uncertainty, and for these Cardinals, who are slowly but surely fixing their gaze on 2008, the future is now.

Not so for the Mets, who remain as puzzled as ever, thanks to a loss that they couldn't have predicted. Pineiro, it seems, just wasn't supposed to be this good.

"I don't care if they had won 10 in a row, they'd have had trouble scoring today," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "Good pitching is always going to stop you, and he was outstanding."

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.