Snell finds form, controls Cardinals bats
Bucs hurler takes inside stuff to fan eight, stop streak vs. rivals
ST. LOUIS -- Ian Snell has waited most of the season to be the story behind a Pirates win. And despite an eventful ninth inning, he most assuredly earned that honor on Tuesday.
After battling through a season's worth of struggles up to this point, the right-hander finally saw the fruits of what can happen when he puts everything together.
Snell attacked hitters. He kept his pitch count low. He trusted his catcher, who called for Snell to pitch inside, something the Bucs starter has done minimally this year.
Snell refused to give in, even to the biggest of his big league nemeses, Albert Pujols. In essence, it was the pitcher that the club had been waiting for throughout most of the season.
"That was a big start for him," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "That's the Ian that I'm used to seeing in the past."
And Snell would be rewarded. The sum of those parts was an eventual 4-1 win over the Cardinals in the first game of an abbreviated two-game series at Busch Stadium.
Snell came into the game winless in four starts against St. Louis this year. But after allowing a leadoff single to Cardinals outfielder Skip Schumaker in the first, the outing would bear little resemblance to the 24 season starts that came before it.
Manager John Russell labeled it as the best start of the season for Snell. And yes, Russell said, it was better than Snell's 10-strikeout performance against Florida back in April.
"He was making good hitters not look comfortable," Russell said. "It's been getting better his last three or four and he put it all together tonight."
Snell (5-10) matched his season high with seven innings pitched, and allowed just three hits after the first. Really, the only serious challenges he faced came in the fifth and seventh frames when St. Louis put a runner on second with one out. Earlier in the year, those were the situations where he gave in. On Tuesday, Snell never flinched.
"It feels good to have my velocity back and not scaring away from challenging them," Snell said. "It's one of my favorite teams to pitch against just because they bring out the best in me."
The reasons behind Snell's success on Tuesday were multi-fold.
Russell credited Snell's fastball command, which the righty established early. From there, Snell was able to use his slider and changeup with ease. Of Snell's eight strikeouts, two came off changeups, two came off fastballs and four came off his slider. He walked just one.
"He threw some fastballs down in the zone and locked some good hitters up," Russell said. "His slider played off of that."
Doumit pointed to a slight tweak in the Snell's game plan. After going away from pitching inside all season, Snell revisited attacking the inside corner.
"He kind of went against his game tonight and threw inside a couple of pitches," Doumit said. "That's only going to make him more effective. As far as I'm concerned, he's heading in the right direction."
And interestingly enough, Snell credited CC Sabathia. Snell said he watched all of Sabathia's start for the Brewers on Monday and zeroed in on how the lefty's success played off his fastball, not his offspeed repertoire.
Snell then emulated that to Sabathia-like results.
This win, though, wouldn't be sealed until a bullpen -- which has continued to fill in exceptionally during the absence of closer Matt Capps -- escaped some tense moments late.
Staked to a 1-0 lead, Snell gave way to Sean Burnett in the eighth. After allowing a single in between getting two outs, Burnett was pulled. In came Denny Bautista to try to neutralize Albert Pujols' potential as the go-ahead run at the plate.
The two would have a nine-pitch showdown. Pujols drilled that ninth pitch, a 93-mph fastball to deep right-center field. Outfielder Nyjer Morgan pursued it all the way, calling off Steve Pearce to make a catch at the wall, well into the right fielder's territory.
"I just yelled my tail off," Morgan joked afterward.
After escaping the eighth, the Pirates found a little more offense than they had been able to muster against Cardinals starter Braden Looper earlier.
Doumit's RBI double off Looper back in the first staked the Pirates to a lead that would eventually hold through. The hit was the first of three that the catcher would finish with. As for Looper, he allowed just two other hits in his seven innings of work.
The Pirates tacked on three runs in the top of the ninth, though they had just two hits in the inning. Two St. Louis errors, as well as catcher Yadier Molina's decision to try to record a forceout at third on a sacrifice bunt -- which he wouldn't get -- all played in the Pirates' favor. By the end of the inning, the Pirates led, 4-0.
But there would still be a few hold-your-breath moments in the bottom half of the frame. John Grabow, the closer du jour, got the first two outs, but walked two. Russell then called on T.J. Beam to get the third.
Beam allowed one run, walked another, but eventually recorded a game-ending strikeout with the bases loaded. The save was the first of Beam's career.
"Every time we play these guys, it's never an easy win," Russell said. "That ninth inning has always been an adventure when we play these guys."
The Pirates improved to 7-6 against St. Louis this season. And as for Snell, the outing was the type he'd like to ride through the season's final six weeks.
"I had high expectations this year, and I really didn't know how to handle them," Snell said. "These guys on this team stuck by me through tough times. It's good to have these guys on your team that are good teammates."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.