Ronny Paulino bounced back from a tough game on Tuesday, Tony Armas pitched well in his second chance in the rotation, and the Pirates offense had its best game of the season in a 15-1 thrashing of the Cardinals at PNC Park.
When Paulino left the field after making two key blunders in the sixth inning on Tuesday, he drew one of the most resounding rounds of boos a Pirate player has received at PNC Park this season.
His reception from the Pittsburgh faithful was quite the opposite on Wednesday, as he drilled a two-out grand slam off Cardinals starter Braden Looper that capped a five-run first and was the first big blow for the Pirates offense. As he touched home and walked to the dugout, the crowd of 17,041 gave Paulino a standing ovation.
"Obviously Ronny Paulino bounced back from a tough night [Tuesday] and showed his mettle in the way he went about his business [on Wednesday]," manager Jim Tracy said.
While Paulino heard the boos for the first time in his career on Tuesday, they didn't affect him nearly as much as the words of encouragement from friends, family and teammates did.
"Actually, last night made me see how many people believe in me," Paulino said. "There were a lot of people telling me I can play. That kept me a little more motivated to show the next day that I can come with my confidence back and play hard."
The Pirates hope that Wednesday's game can be a springboard to get Paulino back to the player they saw last season and in Spring Training.
"We believe in this guy," Tracy said. "He's had his ups and downs. We'll just see how things go as we go forward."
Paulino's grand slam would be more than enough for Armas. The right-hander made his first start since he lost his spot in the rotation due to ineffectiveness in late May and was relegated to a mop-up role in the bullpen.
He had a rough June, but rebounded in July, as work with pitching coach Jim Colborn began to pay off. Armas gave up just one earned run in the month and earned another chance at a starting rotation spot. It was a chance he took full advantage of, as he dominated throughout and never allowed more than one runner to reach base in an inning.
Armas gave up one run on four hits and a walk with five strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings in what was easily his best start of the season.
"Tony was very good," Tracy said. "We started to see some signs of it when he was pitching out of the bullpen. He was making very good pitches tonight. You're seeing hitters swing and miss. We didn't see that in the early part of the season.
"For him to go as far as he did and get in the seventh inning, that's quite an effort," he added.
Armas was clearly relieved to get his first win in a Pirates uniform, as well as have his first dominant outing of the season. He credited his progress to improved mechanics.
"I think I'm more compact in my mechanics," a beaming Armas said. "I can throw my pitches where I want to, and that's a key."
Armas stated his case to remain in the Pirates rotation, but Tracy declined to comment on if the veteran would get another chance to start. The rotation appears to be full at the moment, with the newly-acquired Matt Morris taking the last slot.
Armas made sure that the Pirates didn't need a lot of offense to win, but the Bucs came through with their strongest performance of the season against a foe that had their number earlier in the season. Looper had won both of his starts against Pittsburgh this season and had sterling numbers -- one earned run in 13 innings. Those numbers looked a lot uglier after his four innings of work on Wednesday.
The Bucs tacked on two more runs against Looper in the third, and poured it on when they scored seven runs off Cardinals reliever Mike Maroth in the eighth. They ended up with a season-high 15 runs and 20 hits. Every starter except Nate McLouth at least two hits.
"The biggest part is the at-bats we took," said shortstop Jack Wilson, who went 3-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs. "It wasn't like we just swung the bats [and were] flaring balls. We hit the ball hard, we got good counts and took a lot of pitches."
It was a great day all around for the offense, but the most encouraging sign may have been how the Bucs first got on the board. Looper started the first inning by getting groundouts from McLouth and Jose Bautista, but the Bucs rattled off three straight singles and a walk to set the stage for Paulino.
"I can't recall off the top of my head the last time that we scored five runs after two were out and none were on," Tracy said.
It was a strong all-around performance from a club that had seen its fair share of all-around disappointment in the second half, and a game that Paulino said helped to boost his and the team's confidence. But he said the Bucs will have to build on its success for the breakout game to mean anything.
"Today is over and tomorrow is a new day," Paulino said. "We know that [Thursday] we have to come back and win the series, and the next day take the first game of that series. That's what's important."
Jeremy Anders is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.