PHOENIX -- Comedian Bill Dana built his act around a laughable loser called Jose Jimenez. Baseball's Jose Jimenez hadn't fared so well, either.
Until Friday night, when Jimenez pitched a no-hitter and beat Randy Johnson at his best. After the St. Louis Cardinals' 1-0 victory over Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks, nobody is laughing at the 25-year-old Dominican right-hander.
"I think next start, I'll forget what I did," Jimenez said.
Fat chance. Jimenez (4-7) pitched the first Cardinal no-hitter in 16 years and the first by a St. Louis rookie since Paul Dean did in the nightcap of a doubleheader on Sept. 21, 1934. Paul's brother Dizzy pitched a three-hitter in the opener, then said afterward that "If I'd known Paul was going to throw a no-hitter, I'd have thrown one too."
Rare is the day that great pitching is the story for the 1999 Cardinals. In fact, pitching, or lack of it, is a big reason the Cardinals aren't contenders, despite a powerful offense centered around Mark McGwire.
The big crowd showed up early Friday to watch McGwire slam a few into the seats in batting practice, then saw an old-fashioned superb pitching duel.
"We don't need Big Mac to hit a home run," catcher Alberto Castillo said in the heady aftermath of Friday's win. "We are a team."
For one night anyway, it was true.
With his array of sliders, curves and changeups and his unflappable cool, Jimenez showed why the Cardinals consider him so important to their future.
"He came from Double-A a year ago," manager Tony La Russa said. "You watched him tonight. Did he look like he was rattled?"
Even with Johnson at his overpowering best, striking out 14 to reach 2,500 for his career, Jimenez never cracked.
While Jimenez seemed calm on the outside, he was never too confident, not with Johnson mowing down the opposition in what was a scoreless tie until St. Louis broke through with a run in the ninth, when Thomas Howard broke his bat on Johnson's 96-mph fastball but got the ball to drop in for an RBI single in left field.
"I never thought I couldn't lose it, that they couldn't take it away," Jimenez said, "until the 27th out."
He struck out eight, walked two and hit a batter. Only one runner got as far as second base. Speedy leadoff hitter Tony Womack was the final out.
Jimenez said he felt "a little terror" when Womack stepped to the plate that last time. "I said, `I'm going to keep the ball low. I just need a ground ball. I don't need a strike."
Womack hit the ball harmlessly to second baseman Joe McEwing, who tossed it to McGwire for the final out.
The 6-foot-3 Jimenez, who turns 26 on July 7, was just 18 years old when he signed with the Cardinals. He played three seasons in the Dominican Summer League, one year in rookie ball and another in Class A.
His breakthrough season came last year, when he was 15-6 with Double-A Arkansas, including a no-hitter against Shreveport, and was named the Texas League pitcher of the year.
Called up by the Cardinals late last season, Jimenez was 3-0 with a 2.95 ERA. In his first three starts this year, he was 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA.
The success may have been too much, too soon, La Russa said.
Jimenez went into a tailspin. He lost seven in a row before getting the victory in a 3-2 win over Montreal on June 15. In his last 11 starts, the Cardinals had lost 10 times. He was tied for the NL lead in earned runs allowed with 60. In those last 11 starts, his ERA was an ugly 8.04. The worst came on May 25, when he lost to the San Francisco Giants 17-1.
But the Cardinals knew he had the tools to succeed, La Russa said.
"He has Kevin Brown-type movement," the manager said.
The Diamondbacks, who lead the National League in batting average, runs, hits and home runs, had to agree.
"He frustrated a lot of hitters," Johnson said.
La Russa gave much of the credit to catcher Alberto Castillo for calling pitches that kept the Diamondbacks guessing, usually wrong. And to Eric Davis, who made two sensational catches in right field, despite a seriously sore shoulder.
Davis had been part of one other no-hitter in his career, Tom Browning's perfect game for Cincinnati in 1988.
As the celebration wound down in the visitor's clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark, the Cardinals watched highlights of the game being shown on ESPN. Davis, who has battled back from cancer, who knows how to cherish those rare moments like Friday night, looked up and saw himself make the diving grab of David Dellucci's soft liner in the ninth.
"Nice catch," Davis said.
Down the hall in the interview room, though, Castillo was reminding everyone this was just one game in a sport where there's almost always another game tomorrow.
"Tonight Jose was the man," Castillo said.
But, he said, "Jose has a long way to go to learn how to pitch."
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