SAN DIEGO -- It's safe to say John Smoltz's stuff is still intact. So, evidently, is nearly everything else that has contributed to his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Smoltz, making his Cardinals debut, pitched five outstanding innings in a 5-2 win over the Padres at PETCO Park on Sunday. He struck out nine, including seven in a row at one point -- a number that according to some outlets is a club record, though the Cardinals could not confirm that. Smoltz also beat out a double-play ball to keep a pivotal rally going, and scored his team's first run by hustling home from second on a single. "He did what he's been doing for 22 years," said Albert Pujols, who homered in support of his new teammate. "He's a great competitor. He knows that he still can pitch and he showed it out there. Throwing 93-94 miles per hour with a good split and good bite on his offspeed, that's pretty good. That's impressive. Hopefully he can continue to do it and help us to win the division."
Released by the Red Sox earlier this week, Smoltz looked like the pitcher Boston thought it was getting, rather than the one who struggled to an 8-plus ERA in eight starts. His velocity was just fine, his slider was sharp and his split-finger pitch baffled one hitter after another. Over five shutout innings, Smoltz allowed three hits and didn't issue a walk. He struck out nine Padres, with the seven straight coming from the end of the first through the third inning. It was a most auspicious St. Louis debut for the right-hander, who is scheduled to start again on Friday. "I haven't had many chances to feel this way, so I'm not going to get carried away," said Smoltz. "If I had mediocre stuff, I wouldn't have chosen this place. I could have probably chosen a lesser place with less pressure and just regained my confidence. Because I want to pitch next year. But I truly believed the whole time that I have what it takes. My fastball is good enough, my split's good enough and my slider is as good as it's ever been." Meanwhile, just like teammate Chris Carpenter a night earlier, Smoltz received plenty of run support very early. The Cardinals hung four runs on wild rookie Cesar Carrillo in the second inning, with Ryan Ludwick's two-run single being the big blow in the rally, but Smoltz's infield grounder the pivotal point. With one out and Yadier Molina on first, Smoltz grounded to third base. Molina was out at se cond, but Smoltz kept charging the whole way and beat out the relay. Skip Schumaker singled him to second, and when Brendan Ryan singled to shallow center, the 42-year-old hoofed it home. Smoltz also singled on a sacrifice attempt in the third inning. "I'm not a good hitter anymore, but I think I can battle," he said. "I can make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches. I always believe I can get bunts down, do those little things. Running things out, there's times when you should and times you probably shouldn't. Today was one of those where I felt like if I could beat it out and turn the lineup over, you never know." Handed the lead, Smoltz didn't waver. He struck out the side in order in the second and third, and worked around leadoff base hits in the fourth and fifth. He got 15 outs on 75 pitches, with more than 70 percent of those pitches (53) going for strikes. "I think he did a good job of keeping the splitter and slider down," said Padres infielder David Eckstein. "When you've got someone with the ability and experience he has ... He knows how to pitch," Eckstein said. "And I'm sure there's a comfort level of being back in the National League. I think it was a great move for them." The Redbirds tacked on more in the fourth with a milestone homer. Pujols drilled a 1-1 pitch from reliever Edward Mujica 377 feet to right field for a homer. It was Pujols' 40th home run of the season, marking the fifth time in his career that he has reached that milestone. It's the 11th 40-homer season in franchise history. The Cardinals finished their West Coast road trip with a 5-2 record and moved to a season-best 18 games over .500. They remain eight games ahead of the second-place Cubs in the National League Central.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.