Ryan's slam, sharp Pineiro lift Cards

Ryan's slam, sharp Pineiro lift Cards

ST. LOUIS -- If Joel Pineiro scores a lucrative contract this winter -- and with every start, that appears more likely -- he'll owe an agent-sized cut to Brendan Ryan.

Pineiro has found a new way of pitching this year, and it's to his credit that he's pounded his sinking fastball so consistently and effectively. But without Ryan scooping up everything behind him, it might be a different story. And then you have a night like Thursday, when Ryan added another dimension to his support of Pineiro. The shortstop hit a grand slam, the first of his career, to send the Cardinals to a 5-1 win over the Padres at PETCO Park on Thursday night.

The Redbirds moved seven full games clear of the Cubs in the National League Central division. The Cards have the largest cushion of any division leader in baseball.

When one thinks of dynamic duos on the Cardinals, the names that come to mind are pairs like Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, or Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. But it's hard to find a more beneficial, symbiotic relationship on the roster than the mind-meld that Pineiro and Ryan seem to have in 2009.

Pineiro drops sinker after sinker into the bottom half of the strike zone. Hitters beat the pitch into the ground. Ryan scoops up the ground balls, fires over to first base and rings up the runners. It's truly a thing of beauty, especially from where Pineiro stands.

"When he's got that sinker working, I can really kind of shade the hitter and have a feel for where the ball is going to go," Ryan said. "That creates a routine ground ball for me, when I've got him shaded perfect and he's hitting his spots. That ball is hit right to me, and anything routine should be easy at this level."

Pineiro has made 24 starts this season. In 13 of those starts, Ryan has been his starting shortstop. The righty's 8-3 in those games with a 2.03 ERA. In the 11 games with someone else manning the most important infield position, Pineiro is 4-6 with a 4.56 ERA. And that's far from coincidence. Ryan has established himself as one of the game's best defensive shortstops. For a pitcher such as Pineiro, who relies heavily on his defense, quality shortstop play is critical.

"Nothing against any of the guys, but when I'm pitching, he's one of the guys I want out there because he gets great jumps on the ball," Pineiro said. "He always seems to be there, and he's got a strong arm. He gets great jumps. I think that's the biggest key for him. And if he's reading pitches good, that's even better. He has an idea of where the ball is going to be hit."

And now Ryan is hitting, to boot. He has four multi-hit games in the past 10 days, and his homer on Thursday followed a triple on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. It's adding up to a pretty fine player, especially for a guy who was fighting for a roster spot as a backup infielder in Spring Training.

"Every day I'm trying to prove myself -- prove to everyone, prove to the other teams, everybody -- that I belong and that I want to stay here for a long time," Ryan said. "I'm getting a chance to go out there every day, and the starting rotation is giving me a heck of a lot of chances to show that I can play the field. I'm just trying to take advantage of it every day."

Ryan's slam was the only hit in the Cardinals' second inning. Tim Stauffer hit Holliday with a pitch, then issued a one-out walk to Mark DeRosa before hitting Yadier Molina with another errant curveball. Ryan, batting eighth, turned on a fastball from Stauffer and hit it 382 feet to left-center. It was the second home run of the year for Ryan and the sixth of his Major League career. Ryan had never before hit a grand slam, and in fact, he was 1-for-10 with the bases loaded in his career.

"One big hit," Stauffer said. "I put myself in that situation with a couple that got away from me. I knew I was going to throw a fastball, [and] it rode back over the middle. The eight-hole hitter ... that's not what you're expecting."

That was all the support Pineiro would need, though the righty was a bit shaky early. In each of the first two innings, Molina helped him out by throwing out a would-be base-stealer. After the second, though, Pineiro cruised. The two assists from his catcher certainly helped.

St. Louis has won Pineiro's past nine starts. Thursday's victory was the 11th win in 13 games for the Cards, who improved to a season-best 17 games over .500 at 70-53. It's the furthest they've been above .500 since the last day of the 2005 season, when they were 38 games over at 100-62. The Cardinals are 17-5 since July 27 and 21-11 since the All-Star break.

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