It took Phil Dumatrait seven years of riding buses to reach Major League Baseball and, when he finally achieved that with the Cincinnati Reds last season, he went 0-4 with a 15.00 ERA.
That included an epic meltdown Sept. 9, when all five Milwaukee batters he faced had hits, three of those clearing fences, all on just a dozen pitches.
Boom, boom, boom ...
"I had to get him out of there," Pete Mackanin, the Reds' manager, explained that night. "You don't want to see anyone get embarrassed."
Last night at PNC Park, Pirates manager John Russell walked to the mound to take the ball from Dumatrait, but history hardly repeated itself: Dumatrait had gone 5 2/3 scoreless innings, and he was turning over a two-run lead to the bullpen for what wound up a 3-1 edging of the San Francisco Giants.
First big-league victory.
- Box scores
- Game: Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants, 12:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (2-3, 4.58) vs. RHP Matt Cain (1-2, 4.08)
- Key matchup: The Pirates might do well to be extra patient vs. Cain, who has walked 23 in 32 2/3 innings, with at least three walks in each start.
- Of note: Of note: Ryan Doumit is batting .526 -- 10 for 19 -- with runners in scoring position, the best average in the National League.
And the feeling was anything but embarrassment as he headed to the dugout to a warm ovation from the 9,788 on hand.
"It's unbelievable," a visibly emotional Dumatrait said afterward. "It's a great feeling. I can't even describe it. As long as I live, I'll never forget this great night."
For Dumatrait, still just 26, the road to "this great night" began with being the Boston Red Sox's first-round draft pick in 2000, then was derailed by major elbow surgery four years later. He climbed up through Cincinnati's system, only to have those six poor starts and that nightmarish game against the Brewers -- the last time the Reds let him pitch -- embedded in his mind all fall.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, on a recommendation from special assistant Pete Vuckovich, took a flyer and claimed him off waivers in late October.
"Pete liked his arm, liked his stuff," Huntington said.
Such sentiments grew through a spring training in which, no matter Dumatrait's numbers, management seemed sold on his potential and had him tabbed for the staff.
Now, in his second start since Matt Morris' release, that finally reached fruition, as he struck out five while holding San Francisco to three hits and a walk.
And he did so with flair: He pinpointed his fastball on either corner, had lefties lunging at his across-the-body slider and used more changeups -- a pitch he began perfecting under pitching coach Jeff Andrews this spring -- than in any game as a professional.
"That's the part that surprised me," Dumatrait said. "That pitch was really working."
Russell, another consistent Dumatrait backer, saw it the same way.
"I thought he was great, not just with all the pitches he was using, but also with how he kept everything down in the zone," Russell said. "And that changeup was good for him."
Dumatrait had a good idea, apparently, that something more was needed after his 2007.
"When I was claimed off waivers, it lit a fire under me," he said. "I look at tape now, and I'm a totally different pitcher. I can tell you, I've never had this kind of confidence. Never."
Dumatrait's counterpart, Barry Zito, has had an opposite career path, going from perennial All-Star to $126 million bust for San Francisco, but he pitched well enough in his first start after a brief banishment to the bullpen.
Except for one key sequence.
He left a 3-1 changeup up in the zone for Jason Bay to stroke into center for a leadoff single in the fourth. And his next offering, a decent changeup, was lined by Xavier Nady into the left-field bleachers for his fifth home run, his National League-leading 33rd and 34th RBIs, and a 2-0 lead for the Pirates.
"He hit a good pitch," Zito said of Nady. "I'm upset about the pitch to Bay."
That would be all the damage in Zito's five innings, his record falling to 0-7.
In the sixth, Dumatrait gave up Daniel Ortmeier's leadoff double. He fanned Fred Lewis and got a comebacker from Randy Winn for the second out, and it was there that Russell turned to Tyler Yates to face Aaron Rowand.
"Phil was starting to elevate the ball a little," Russell said. "Plus, I like what our bullpen can do."
Rowand swung over Yates' sizzling slider -- 90 mph, almost unfair for that pitch -- for strike three.
Yates pitched the seventh, too, and Damaso Marte followed by striking out the side in the eighth, all three batters looking at third-strike fastballs.
"Fastball, fastball, fastball," Marte said.
Nate McLouth brought insurance in the Pirates' eighth: He tripled off the fence in center and, after staying put on Bay's infield single, sprinted home when Nady grounded into a double play.
No RBI on that one.
Closer Matt Capps sweated a bit to get his seventh save, giving up three singles on his first four pitches and letting San Francisco pull within 3-1. But, after a visit from Andrews, he got Rich Aurilia's flyout and Jose Castillo's double play.
The Pirates, after taking the first two of this three-game set, have won 12 of 14 against the Giants.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com. First Published May 8, 2008 4:00 AM