Ian Snell clearly welcomed it.
He was facing the game's best hitter, Albert Pujols, with two aboard, two out and a tied score, the outcome very much appearing to hang in the balance.
And he had known little other than failure in their previous encounters.
As Snell would put it much more deftly, "Dude usually kills me."
Not this time.
Snell put down Pujols with a popup to end that critical sixth inning, capping an uplifting performance in which he and the Pirates overcame an early four-run deficit to upend the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-4, last night at PNC Park.
- Box scores
- Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Tom Gorzelanny (1-2, 9.35) vs. RHP Joel Pineiro (0-2, 8.10).
- Key matchup: The Pirates should get good wood on Pineiro, who has given up 18 hits in 10 innings this season. But a longer look back shows he has a 1.98 ERA in two career meetings.
- Of note: No opponent has more victories at PNC Park than St. Louis, at 41-18, but the best winning percentage is the .769 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, at 20-6.
Jason Bay hit a two-run home run, Jose Bautista broke a 4-4 tie in the eighth with an RBI single, and the bullpen again was spotless, but ...
"Give Ian the credit," Bay said.
OK, then, back to Snell ...
He allowed St. Louis to bat around in the first inning and gave up four runs, a highly inauspicious start. And, truth be told, one that might have capsized a less mature version of the Pirates' ace.
But Snell bounced back to put up five zeroes.
"You could tell things weren't really clicking for him early," manager John Russell said. "But he got stronger as the game went along, and that's a great sign of a quality pitcher."
Snell credited fellow starter Matt Morris for settling him between innings.
"I was just rushing myself in the first, and Matty just told me to go out there and get outs," Snell recalled.
As he did just that, the rest of his teammates rallied with the bats: Ryan Doumit's RBI single and Xavier Nady's sacrifice fly cut the deficit to 4-2 in the fourth, and Bay's home run -- off a Todd Wellemeyer fastball into the left-field bleachers for his third of the season -- tied it.
"I'll take it if even if it's 384 feet," Bay said of the high fly that barely cleared the 383-foot marker.
But St. Louis threatened to retake its lead in the sixth when Snell walked two, including Rick Ankiel to bring up Pujols with men at first and second and two outs.
The same Pujols who had been 11 for 18 with four home runs off Snell.
The same Pujols who had reached base his first three times to raise his ridiculous on-base percentage to .500, best in Major League Baseball.
And yes, the same Pujols who has been walked 20 times this season, prompting him and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa to complain publicly the previous day in Milwaukee.
Would the Pirates do likewise?
Russell had strongly indicated beforehand they would -- "You don't want him to beat you," he said -- but that never seemed to be in the plan.
"They know me," Snell said of the coaching staff. "They know I'm a competitor."
After ball one -- or, as Snell remembered it, "a strike right down the middle" -- pitching coach Jeff Andrews went to the mound.
"I just went over our plan for Pujols," Andrews said.
And that plan?
"Well, there's no one way to pitch to him. He hits everything. I just told Ian, 'When you throw this, you can't just aim it. There has to be conviction.' "
The count ran full, and neither Snell nor Doumit gave in. Doumit sought the direct approach, putting down one finger for the fastball. But Snell shook that off for a slider.
It stayed up a little, but Pujols got under it for the popup into foul territory, squeezed by first baseman Adam LaRoche, and Snell pumped his right fist as the crowd of 10,487 roared its approval.
Pujols won the war, but Snell won the battle with his 113th and final pitch.
"To tell the truth, I am so happy about that," he said.
The Cardinals surely were not, but La Russa did tip his cap.
"It's one of the reasons we respect him," La Russa said of Snell. "Albert's had some success against him, but he's always competed against him. That's the idea of this game, to compete. You're raising competitors, not cowards. He won that competition. Give him a lot of credit."
Thanks to two seamless innings from Damaso Marte -- with five of six batters right-handed, no less -- the 4-4 tied carried into the bottom of the eighth.
Doumit led off with a single off Anthony Reyes and, with Doumit at second two outs later, Bautista turned inside-out on a fastball and sent it into right to put the Pirates ahead.
This after being benched for two games and being none too pleased about it.
"That felt really good," Bautista said.
After a Brian Bixler double, pinch-hitter Doug Mientkiewicz's single to left drove in two more.
"When No. 5 is on the other side, a little insurance never hurts," Mientkiewicz said of Pujols.
Matt Capps pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his sixth save, including a flyout from Pujols, to end the Pirates' second victory in as many nights after a six-game losing streak.
"When we play good baseball, we're extremely competitive," Mientkiewicz said. "When we're sloppy, we're awful."
Nady's fifth-inning double raised his hitting streak to a career-high 11, and his RBI made him the third player in the National League to reach 20.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published April 24, 2008 4:00 AM