Despite five years of evidence to the contrary, the Pirates believed there was a good major league pitcher to be found in Edinson Volquez. Scouts thought an above-average curveball and changeup, paired with a fastball in the strike zone, hinted at potential improvement. For one start, at least, Volquez proved them right.
Volquez surged Sunday through the St. Louis Cardinals lineup. He went toe-to-toe with Adam Wainwright, the 2013 National League Cy Young runner-up. He pitched well enough for the Pirates to win, 2-1, at PNC Park and capture a series victory.
"It's the guy that we have seen before," manager Clint Hurdle said.
In 52/3 innings Sunday, Volquez allowed one run on three hits. He issued one intentional walk and struck out four.
Tony Sanchez's double in the seventh inning broke a 1-1 tie. Sanchez's game-calling also helped Volquez stay in his rhythm against a tough Cardinals lineup. Tony Watson earned the win in relief, and Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli closed out the Cardinals in the eighth and ninth innings.
The Pirates signed Volquez, 30, to a one-year, $5 million contract at the winter meetings in December as their latest reclamation project of a pitcher with good stuff but several seasons removed from numbers that matched. He allowed more earned runs than any other pitcher in the National League in 2013, mostly while pitching at pitcher-friendly Petco Park as his home stadium as a member of the San Diego Padres.
The Pirates signed him because they saw hope. They wanted him to keep his head more on line to the plate and land squarely on his left foot on his delivery rather than rolling onto its left edge. He worked on removing the ball from his glove earlier and keeping his front side from opening too quickly.
"There was only a handful of times where I told him he was a little too quick, but he was great," said Sanchez, who caught Sunday against the Cardinals. "He really, really showed what he's capable of and he proved that he belongs here with us."
Matt Carpenter singled to start the game. Matt Holliday reached on a fielder's choice two batters later. For a while, that was it.
Volquez did not allow another baserunner until the sixth inning, recording 16 consecutive outs. He made good use of his curveball, recording three of his four strikeouts with the pitch. His changeup worked as well.
"He pitched a gem," Hurdle said. "He pitched a flat-out gem. He matched Wainwright for the entire time he was out there."
"My mechanics were better," Volquez said. "My delivery was something we've been working on in spring training."
Wainwright took matters into his own hands in the sixth with a one-out single up the middle. Carpenter reached on a fielder's choice before Jon Jay tripled to the wall in right-center field. That tied the score at 1-1.
Volquez intentionally walked Matt Holliday before giving way to left-handed Watson, who came in to face left-handed Matt Adams. Watson struck out Adams on three pitches.
Wainwright issued a leadoff walk to Pedro Alvarez to start the seventh. He then struck out Neil Walker and Gaby Sanchez. Tony Sanchez watched Gaby Sanchez's at-bat from the on-deck circle and saw Wainwright deploy his assassin of a curveball late in the count.
"Me being an aggressive hitter, I did not want to get to that pitch," Tony Sanchez said. "I tried to take advantage of an early fastball and luckily enough I did."
Sanchez ripped a 1-0 fastball into the gap in right-center field, scoring Alvarez and giving the Pirates the lead. The hit illustrated how Sanchez, who made the active roster out of spring training due to Chris Stewart's knee injury and found himself in a backup role for the first time in a long time, is adapting to the reserve role.
"One thing we did talk about, after some experience last year, when you're a part-time player, you got to be ready to hit a fastball," Hurdle said. "You stay on the fastball, you never get off the fastball, and then you just battle."
Doubles by Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker put the Pirates on the board with a 1-0 lead in the fourth.
One good start does not immediately vanquish concerns about Volquez's past. It did get the Pirates a win, and for now that'll do.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published April 6, 2014 4:14 PM