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Error dooms Pujols-less Cards vs. Nats

Error dooms Pujols-less Cards

WASHINGTON -- It's hard to resist the temptation to wonder "what if" when it comes to the St. Louis Cardinals' 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals Saturday afternoon.

As in, what if preeminent slugger and Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman Albert Pujols had been in the lineup?

With the team (17-8) in the midst of a 20-games-in-20-days span, playing a day game after a night game, manager Tony La Russa opted to give Pujols his first day off of the season to rest his tired legs.

But while they certainly missed his bat and glove, the truth is it's hard to imagine that anyone could have beaten Nationals rookie right-hander Shairon Martis, who tossed the first complete-game win for the club since 2006 and just the eighth complete game by a Nats pitcher since the club returned to D.C. in '05.

Martis (3-0) was brilliant, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning and scattering five hits, striking out six without walking a batter.

"After the second inning, I knew I had good stuff," said Martis, who lowered his ERA to 4.60 in five starts. "My fastball had good life, changeup was excellent, the slider was good. Today was the day."

La Russa had to agree.

"He worked us over," La Russa said. "He was just shutting us down completely. He was outstanding."

Martis' gem negated a strong performance from Cards starter Joel Pineiro (4-1), who allowed four runs -- only one of which was earned -- on seven hits in seven innings, striking out four while walking one. With the exception of two well-hit balls, including a key three-run homer by Adam Dunn, most of the hits stayed in the infield or not far out of it.

"My gameplan was the same as always -- to get ground balls -- and I got them, but they just found the holes," said Pineiro. "But you have to tip your cap to Martis, he pitched a great game."

The game was a pitchers' duel into the fifth before Washington (6-17) took advantage of an error to score four runs in the bottom of the inning and never looked back.

The momentum of the game hinged on a miscue in the field as Pujols' replacement for the day, outfielder Chris Duncan, dropped a pop foul that opened the floodgates for three runs to score in that inning.

The big blow was a towering blast into the right-field stands by Dunn with two outs, but all three of those runs were unearned since the shot came after the previous batter, Ryan Zimmerman, hit a two-out single during an at-bat extended by Duncan's error.

But Pineiro took all the blame.

"I made one big mistake," he said. "I was trying to back [Dunn] off the plate with a slider, but when you do that to a big-time hitter like him, he's gonna make you pay for it. Sometimes you can get away with a pitch like that, but today I didn't, and the whole ballgame turned around."

Duncan, playing his first game at first base since July 2008, actually came up through the system as a solid first-base prospect, but his path was obviously blocked there when he reached St. Louis in '05, since Pujols had already moved over there in '04.

Pujols is understandably known for his offense -- thanks to two National League Most Valuable Player Awards and 100-plus RBIs in each of his eight seasons thus far -- but also won a Gold Glove Award in 2006, the first St. Louis first baseman to earn that honor since Keith Hernandez in 1982.

The only blemish on Martis' masterpiece was inflicted by a fellow rookie. Colby Rasmus, in for Duncan in left field, broke Martis' shutout in the top of the seventh, when he connected on his first pitch for his first career homer, a line shot to right field.

"I'm pretty excited about it," Rasmus admitted, "but if I could take it back and have the win instead of the home run, I'd do that."

La Russa knew the 2005 first-round pick wouldn't have to wait much longer for that first big league homer.

"He's been hitting the ball well, so it was about time he hit one that didn't get caught in the wind or something," La Russa said. "That was a bomb."

Cardinals fans need not panic. Not only does their team still boast the best record in the Majors right now, but Pujols, who is hitting .356 with nine homers, is just fine.

"We were going to pick one [day off] on the road, and this one made the most sense," La Russa said. "His legs were a little 'ouchy,' because he's done so much running, and we don't want to push him. I don't think mentally he needs the break as much as physically. He's not hurting, but he's sore."

Pujols was available to pinch-hit Saturday but the proper situation never arose.

"We'd save him for the chance to tie or go ahead," La Russa said.

Thanks -- or no thanks -- to Martis, that chance never came.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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