One night after launching a go-ahead home run, Pujols' pinch-hit solo shot to lead off the 10th on Saturday sealed the Pirates' ninth straight loss and essentially finished off a night in which Pittsburgh wasted an outstanding effort by Ross Ohlendorf. The Pirates' 2-1 loss to the Cardinals came in front of 27,071 at PNC Park and put them one defeat away from sealing the franchise's 17th straight losing season.
After being given his fourth game off this season, Pujols was summoned with the game tied at 1. On the mound was closer Matt Capps, who had needed just 10 pitches to pitch a perfect ninth. His 1-2 fastball to Pujols, though, was right over the plate, and the first baseman easily drilled it over the center-field wall.
"He's phenomenal," said manager John Russell, shaking his head.
"I get that down and I think it's a different outcome," said Capps. "I didn't do it."
On the surface, this may have been just another loss for a reeling Pirates team. But what Ohlendorf did in his 27th start of the year overshadowed all. As the Bucs play out this final month of the season largely to get a gauge on what's to come in 2010, Ohlendorf continues to establish himself not only as an expected mainstay in the rotation but as a pitcher ready to sit at the top of it.
In one of the more dominant performances handed in by a starter this season, Ohlendorf shut down a potent Cardinals lineup while pitching a career-best eight innings. Granted, he didn't have to face Pujols or Matt Holliday, but with the stuff Ohlendorf had on Saturday, that might not have even mattered.
"He's getting stronger and better as the year goes on," Andy LaRoche said. "He's been fun to watch, fun to play behind."
Ohlendorf was sensational from start to finish, with only an error by the usually sure-handed LaRoche and his own balk in the sixth marring the right-hander's outing. After allowing a leadoff single in the frame, Ohlendorf was called for a balk as his cleat got caught in the dirt.
"I didn't feel like it at the time," Ohlendorf said. "But I looked at the video and I think I did."
A flyout moved Skip Schumaker to third, and then LaRoche's inability to field a one-out grounder handed the Cardinals the game-tying unearned run.
"I've got to at least knock that down and keep that in front of me," LaRoche said. "It sucks because Ross pitched a heck of a game, and one screwup by me and it cost him a 'W' -- it cost our team a 'W.' It's embarrassing when you can't make a routine play like that."
Ohlendorf otherwise allowed only one runner to meander into scoring position all evening.
He struck out the side in both the fourth and the seventh, with the latter coming in an inning where he threw just nine pitches. Ohlendorf joined Jeff Robinson as just the second pitcher in Pirates history to do so. Robinson accomplished the feat 22 years ago.
"That was pretty cool," Ohlendorf said of becoming the 40th different pitcher and second this year to strike out the side with the minimum number of pitches. "I was thinking about that after about the fifth pitch."
Ohlendorf finished with 11 strikeouts in all, easily bettering his previous career high of eight and remarkably becoming the first Pirates pitcher to fan that many since Ian Snell did so in his first start of 2007. Of the 103 pitches Ohlendorf threw, 77 were strikes. The slider was his key.
"Look at his record," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "He hasn't lost, he hasn't given up anything the last two months. He's a young guy who's getting better and better."
The start-to-start consistency that was lacking from Ohlendorf earlier this season has all but been found as of late. Though his outside chance at reaching the 15-win mark was shattered by the Bucs' inability to provide him any offensive aid, Ohlendorf has put together a scintillating second half.
Saturday's effort lowered his second-half ERA to 2.70 in eight starts. His ERA at home this season is just a nudge higher at 2.74. And considering that the Pirates have now lost six times in games where Ohlendorf made a quality start, even his win total masks how good the right-hander has been.
"I'm really happy with how things are going," Ohlendorf said. "The beginning of the season was tough. It was an improvement over last September, where I really struggled, but I still knew I could pitch better. I feel like my consistency has been much better."
The keys to Ohlendorf's second-half turnaround have been fairly straightforward. The new over-the-head motion in his delivery has helped tremendously, and Ohlendorf has learned the ins and outs of mastering his preparation. His tempo has also noticeably quickened.
"He's been tremendous all year about growing with each start and learning from each start, and he's starting to put it all together," Russell said. "There's no telling how much better he's going to get even now."
The Pirates' best chance at ensuring Ohlendorf was awarded a win came in the fourth. After Lastings Milledge drove in the game's first run with an RBI double, Steve Pearce drilled a ball off Cardinals starter Mitchell Boggs that looked headed for the gap in left-center. But instead of a two-RBI hit for Pearce, Rick Ankiel made a sensational running catch and turned the grab into an inning-ending double play.
The Pirates would then leave another seven runners on base the rest of the night, including stranding three in the ninth and two in the 10th.
"It's been a tough week and a half," Capps said. "We've had opportunities to win games and haven't done it. It's been very frustrating."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.