ST. LOUIS -- Like most of his St. Louis Cardinals teammates, closer Seung Hwan Oh hasn't been at his best in the first two-plus weeks of the season.
On Tuesday night, Oh struggled again, but found a way out of a difficult spot and lifted St. Louis to its first back-to-back victories and initial series win.
"I'm trying to get low with the slider and trying to implement my adjustments the right way," Oh said through an interpreter. "This can help my confidence, I think."
Entering the ninth inning with an ERA of 9.53 and an opponents' batting average of .346, Oh found quick trouble when David Freese and Francisco Cervelli singled to start the inning. After Josh Bell's half-swing on a low 3-2 fastball netted the first out, Jordy Mercer beat Oh to first on a slow grounder to first baseman Jose Martinez for an infield single that filled the sacks.
But Oh found his location just in time. Phil Gosselin's grounder back to the mound resulted in a force play on pinch-runner Alen Hanson at the plate despite a low throw home, and Adam Frazier lifted a harmless fly ball to left for the last out.
"He's the same guy all the time," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said of Oh. "We've seen him make those big pitches in big situations before."
Oh did that last year, going 6-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 19 saves in his rookie season in the majors after 11 mostly outstanding seasons in his native Korea and Japan. He supplanted Trevor Rosenthal as the closer and earned that role going into the spring.
However, the Cardinals' slow start resulted in Oh going a week between appearances after blowing the save in an Opening Night victory, and hasn't yet resembled the pitcher he was in 2016.
"That's just an excuse," he said of the erratic workload.
No excuses have been necessary for starter Mike Leake (2-1), who gave up only his second run in 21 1/3 innings on Gregory Polanco's sixth-inning groundout but earned the victory. Leake scattered seven hits, walked none and fanned one.
Pounding the edges of the zone with his sinker and breaking pitches, Leake obtained 12 outs via grounders in a third straight outing far removed from his career-worst 4.69 ERA last year.
"Pretty in sync," he said of his pitches. "The stuff moving down and away was a bit tricky, but other than that, I felt pretty good."
In its second straight 2-1 decision, St. Louis (5-9) again sputtered offensively, managing just four hits off starter Chad Kuhl (1-1) and reliever Wade LeBlanc. But its runs in the first and fifth were enough to ensure a win.
Dexter Fowler broke a 1-for-19 skid with a leadoff triple in the first and then scored when he beat Bell's throw from first on a check-swing grounder by Stephen Piscotty. In the fifth, Greg Garcia laced an RBI double to right-center that scored Martinez, although Garcia was tossed out trying to stretch the hit into a triple.
Kuhl was a tough-luck loser, allowing only three hits and two runs over six innings with a walk and three strikeouts. But that was just enough to get him beat against a pitcher who has defeated Pittsburgh (6-8) in nine of his last 11 decisions.
"We haven't been able to counter-punch very effectively," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of facing Leake. "He makes pitches, he's very effective, he competes well on the mound. He's a guy that we've been challenged by."
NOTES: To replace CF Starling Marte, who drew an 80-game suspension Tuesday for using nandrolone, Pittsburgh recalled OF Jose Osuna from Triple-A Indianapolis. ... St. Louis 1B Matt Carpenter (finger) didn't start for the second straight game after being injured fielding a bad-hop grounder Sunday night at the New York Yankees. ... Pirates 3B Jung Ho Kang has an appeals hearing set for May 25 in his native South Korea. Kang received an eight-month jail sentence, which was suspended for two years, in March for his third DUI conviction since 2009, and he hasn't been able to procure a United States work visa.