ST. LOUIS -- Over more than 10 seasons, the Cardinals have seen it innumerable times. There's almost no offensive funk so deep that Albert Pujols can't get the Redbirds righted. Even when the three-time National League Most Valuable Player isn't feeling his best at the plate, he's capable of delivering a key swing or two to turn a game.
Pujols did it again on Tuesday night, reaching base twice and driving in two runs, to help St. Louis to a much-needed 3-2 win over the Pirates at Busch Stadium. The Cards' run total was right in line with their previous four games, but the way they got there was quite a bit more encouraging -- starting with Pujols' production.
The winning run came too late to provide Kyle McClellan with a victory, but the first-time starter nonetheless came out of the game with plenty of good feeling as well. McClellan turned in six excellent innings in his inaugural big league start, making the decision to slot him in for the injured Adam Wainwright look very good for the time being.
Pujols had entered the game in a bit of a slump, with a 2-for-16 mark on the year that included no hits in four at-bats with men in scoring position. He was solid all night on Tuesday, though, drawing a first-inning walk before driving in his second and third runs of the year. It was Pujols' seventh-inning RBI single that completed the Cardinals' hard-fought comeback.
"I've been here before," he said. "I'm mentally strong and I know that it's a long season. You just can't give up. You need to keep pushing and keep making the adjustments that I know how to make."
A first-inning homer by Lyle Overbay put the Cards in a hole, but one run at a time, they worked their way back. Allen Craig's fourth-inning RBI single got the Redbirds on the board, and Pujols hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth that tied the score.
Ryan Theriot started the winning rally with a one-out walk, and Colby Rasmus' bloop single moved Theriot to second. Pujols poked a single into left field that scored Theriot and gave the Cards their first lead of the night.
"It feels good, definitely," Pujols said. "I helped the team today to win. At the end, that's what you play for. If we would have lost the game, yeah, I drive in two runs, but you know what, we lost the game."
The rally made a winner of reliever Miguel Batista, who pitched 1 2/3 shutout innings. But the pitching story for the Cards was McClellan's first Major League start. McClellan did everything his team could have asked for and then some over six strong innings.
McClellan had a little trouble with his location early, and paid the price to the tune of two first-inning runs. But he settled in and gave the Cards a quality start, continuing the form that marked his brilliant spring.
"It felt like it took me a little bit to kind of get calmed down a little bit," he said. "It wasn't really emotions. I just felt strong out there and it took me about three innings before I felt like I kind of got control of everything. I was just up a little bit. I was overthrowing my cutter and wasn't locating as well as I wanted to, like I felt I did later on."
A leadoff double put McClellan in trouble in the first, but he nearly escaped by striking out the next two batters. However, he left a curveball up to Overbay, and the hitter made him pay. The Pittsburgh first baseman drilled a two-run homer 421 feet to right-center, putting the Bucs on top.
After that, though, McClellan was nails. He was barely threatened from the second through the fifth, and when he did get in trouble, he dodged it. Two singles brought up the dangerous Pedro Alvarez with runners on the corners, but McClellan got Alvarez to ground into a double play. That was his last batter, as he was removed for Batista in the seventh.
"You have to give credit to the other pitcher," Overbay said. "He did real well. He kept the ball down. When he got in trouble he made the big pitch."
The Cardinals improved to 2-3 on the season, remaining 2 1/2 games behind the undefeated Reds in the NL Central.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.