ST. LOUIS – A buzz coursed through the new Busch Stadium, the kind that portends something special. Yadier Molina, the catcher who had propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series, waddled toward the plate Sunday night with the bases loaded in the first game of the 2007 season, and it was against the New York Mets, no less, the team Molina bounced from the playoffs with one swing last year.
Surely Tom Glavine, who stood on the mound, heard the din. He had watched the pregame celebration of the Cardinals' championship and seen Molina's home run off Aaron Heilman in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The video board played it at least a dozen times in the hour leading up to the game, nothing compared to the hundreds of times the Mets did in their heads this offseason.
It was after Game 1 of the NLCS that Albert Pujols, the game's greatest hitter, had besmirched Glavine's seven shutout innings, saying, "He wasn't good," and repeating it, just in case people hadn't heard the first time. For someone with the hitting IQ of Pujols, it seemed borderline ignorant to fall prey for what so many others had over the previous 20 years: Glavine blows people away without knocking them down, a whispering wind felling Sequoias.
And so it went again Sunday night, in the final at-bat of Glavine's evening. He started Molina with a slow curveball for a strike, wasted a fastball outside and came back with a cut fastball that split his maple bat in two pieces, resulted in a harmless pop-up to Jose Reyes and preserved the advantage in New York's eventual 6-1 victory, the 291st of Glavine's career.
"I've been doing this long enough now that I know what I do well, I know what I need to do in order to be good and I trust my ability to do that," said Glavine, who gave up one run on six hits in six innings. "Believe me, there are times I stand out there and wish I could say, 'You know what, try and hit it,' and throw a fastball.
"If I threw hard, I probably wouldn't know what to do with it. I have a much greater appreciation for being able to make pitches."
That's what Glavine does. He doesn't pitch so much as he makes pitches, cobbles them together out of a good-enough arm. Instead, he was gifted a brilliant mind, and that's why, sometime this season, he'll become the 23rd pitcher to win 300 games, why he's on an exclusive list of left-handers to win 20 games at least five times – Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Eddie Plank, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell and Hippo Vaughn – and why even as his fastball doesn't creep much above 85 mph, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who knows something about pitching, said Glavine looked "better than ever."
Glavine defers much of the credit to his circle changeup, held with a grip like he's giving an OK sign, which must look like some sort of cruel joke to hitters. Changeups tend to work best when thrown by power pitchers, such as Johan Santana, who can create 10 or 15 mph difference between it and their fastball. Somehow, the erosion of speed off Glavine's fastball hasn't affected his changeup's effectiveness.
"The pitch isn't difficult," Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson said. "It's his pitch that's difficult. Lots of other guys throw changeups. His is the reason he's close to 300 wins. It's not about the pitch. It's about the pitcher."
In the top of the fourth inning, with the Mets ahead 5-0 after a flurry of hits off perhaps the NL's best pitcher, Chris Carpenter, Wilson worked Glavine to a full count. Wilson, a 10-year veteran with a propensity to strike out, dug in. Glavine waited until catcher Paul Lo Duca flashed the right sign.
"A lot of guys know what's coming," Glavine said. "I know they know it's coming."
Even so, they still can't hit his changeup. Glavine could stand on the mound, shout that he's throwing his changeup, aim for his favorite spot – outside corner and low, like Leo Mazzone taught him – and get the same result he did from Wilson, a swing and a miss followed by a second of stillness, like, man, how'd he do that again?
It's the same ruse that fooled Pujols. As eminently hittable as Glavine's pitches look, they just aren't.
"His changeup is like Greg Maddux's," Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said. "They have bite to 'em. They go down. They drop instead of staying on plane. And that's what makes them so difficult. They look like a strike, and usually, by the time they finish up, they're not."
Glavine enjoys talking with opposing hitters to figure out what it's like to face him. He's 41 years old now, one of the most intelligent and respected players in the game, so such questions get answered. And it's almost always the same: He confuses them by mixing his pitches expertly, the mound version of a great bartender.
"He's a pitcher," Wilson said, "in every sense of the word."
That he is, and that's why he has survived long enough to win 300 in the era of specialized relief pitching and five-man rotations. All spring, when queried about reaching 300, Glavine has thrown out a stock answer: "I guarantee nobody looked at me in 1988 and thought, 'That guy's going to have a chance to win 300 games some day.' "
He's right. Glavine was a skinny left-hander with a baby face who didn't throw very hard. Only people overlooked one important intangible.
He was good. And, no matter what Pujols or anyone else says, he still is.