Joel Pineiro's offensive contributions may have outshone his pitching Monday night, but it was the kind of game the Cardinals refused to lose, bouncing back time and again with any number of heroes stepping up with both the bat and the glove, on the pitcher's mound and on the basepaths.
Ultimately, Albert Pujols had the final act of heroism in the Cardinals' 6-5 victory, not so much by his one-out double in the top of a tied ninth inning off Rockies All-Star closer Brian Fuentes, but in his savvy baserunning, breaking for third with Rick Ankiel at the plate and storming on to home when Ankiel tapped a soft grounder to second. Rockies rookie second baseman Jonathan Herrera threw to first for the second out, and Gold Glover Todd Helton fired for home, missing Pujols by a hair.
"I knew I had the [third base] bag pretty easy, I got a good jump," Pujols said. "I heard the sound of the bat and I looked back and I was already on third base. I saw the second baseman, and I kind of hesitated, but I saw him not even look at me and I just took off."
It was a gamble, with no time for calculations, but Pujols let his feet think for him, earning a hard-fought win in the opener of the four-game set.
"I got my mind set," Pujols said of his break for the plate. "It's something that you don't practice. It's something that just happens. I'm not a fast runner, but I take advantage of the situation when I'm on base. I know how to run the bases."
Given Pujols' under-the-radar speed, it wasn't hard to cut the Rockies rookie second sacker a little slack for going to first with the play.
"You have to give him credit,'' Herrera said. "He took the chance and made it. He surprised everybody. I was thinking he wasn't going to go. I heard everybody yelling 'four' [to throw to home], but I already was making my angle to throw to first base.''
There wasn't a lot of fault La Russa could find on a night that saw his team showing the relentless resilience that has them sitting atop the NL Central, 2 1/2 games ahead of the Cubs. The roll call of key contributors was longer than the lineup, and it started with the starting pitcher.
Pineiro entered the game with a question mark by his name, as a result of back spasms he'd experienced between starts. But it was a swinging strike on the first pitch he saw in a 10-pitch at-bat in the fourth that proved most disruptive to the Cardinals' early rhythm. After missing the pitch with his bat, the pitch hit Pineiro on the right forearm, and though he finished the at-bat by hitting a two-run double, he was unable to retire a batter in the bottom of the inning, giving up three hits, two runs -- one earned -- and the lead in the frame before leaving the game.
|"My job is not to just come here and drive guys in or hit balls out of the park. My job is to do whatever I can to help my team win. It's running the bases or playing defense or with the big hits, whatever I can do."|
|-- Albert Pujols|
Much of the credit goes to a thin bullpen. Kyle McClellan and Ryan Franklin were unavailable, and if the Cardinals hadn't broken the tie in the ninth, Russ Springer was the only other reliever La Russa had to pitch into extras.
"We were in tough straits," La Russa said of his limited options. "We took our best shot to win, and it worked out."
Ron Villone and Mike Parisi, making his Major League debut, pitched a pair of scoreless innings each to keep the game close from the fourth to the seventh.
"My heart started going a little bit, and I just had to tell myself to relax," said Parisi, who pitched a perfect sixth then put two on with two out in the seventh before escaping unscathed. "I got a little bit jacked up, but I recovered and tried to just step back and make some pitches and get out of it. I put up a zero, and we got a win. It was great."
The Cards broke a 4-4 tie in the top of the eighth, converting a leadoff walk into a run for the second time in the game. Yadier Molina kept the rally going with a single to left and pinch-hitter Ryan Ludwick doubled home the go-ahead run. The lead was short lived, as Colorado rallied to tie the score in the bottom of the inning.
After reclaiming the lead in the ninth, closer Jason Isringhausen benefited from a brilliant play from defensive replacement Cesar Izturis, who ranged far to his right to rob Matt Holliday of a hit, barely nipping him at first.
"If that ball gets by him, it's a double," said La Russa. "This was really a team effort -- a lot of guys did something."
With Pineiro getting his first hit of the season -- and just the third of his career -- for extra bases and a pair of RBIs and Pujols making his impact showing his smarts on the basepaths, guys got out of their zone to secure the win.
"My job is not to just come here and drive guys in or hit balls out of the park," Pujols summed up. "My job is to do whatever I can to help my team win. It's running the bases or playing defense or with the big hits, whatever I can do."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.