PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Pirates bats came out swinging off the Houston Astros on Saturday night at PNC Park. After seeing the offense struggle the night before, the club pounded out five runs off lefty Starter J.A. Happ in the 5-2 win.
In fact, Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said after Friday night’s 1-0 loss that “the offense has been the last piece to join the party.” While the pitching staff continues to shine and the defense has played well behind the starters, the offense has struggled to score runs this season.
The Pirates have scored at least five runs at PNC Park just four times this season over 17 home games, and their .223 team average ranks 29th in the Majors, trailing only the San Diego Padres (.221).
Perhaps on Saturday it was a glimpse of them breaking through.
The Pirates were able to tack a run off the Astros in the first — something they have struggled to do this season. The Bucs have scored just eight runs in the first frame, while the opposing team has plated 25.
Jose Tabata took a 1-2 slider from J.A. Happ for a triple into the gap in right-center field. It marked his second triple in as many games. After failing to drive him in with no outs in Friday’s 1-0 loss, Neil Walker hit a sac fly to right to plate the first run of the inning.
“That will make you smile. It made them smile as well,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “You get a leadoff triple, we haven’t always cashed in. Neil came in and put a good swing on the ball. We just found ways to keep scratching and clawing.”
Andrew McCutchen picked up his second hit of the night off Happ in the third inning — a line drive solo home run off a 1-2 fastball into right center field. McCutchen started the season homerless over his first 95 at-bats, but has hit three home runs over his last five games. The Pirates are 12-5 when they homer at least once in a game this season.
Tabata, too, connected for a home run off Happ, this time in the fifth inning. The outfielder took a 3-2 pitch into the seats in right field for his second long ball of the season.
McCutchen — who went on to have a 4-for-4 night — led off the bottom of the sixth with an infield single to short. Over his last five games, the All-Star center fielder has gone 10-for-17 (.588) with three homers.
“Andrew has another big night,” Hurdle said. “That’s two four-hit games this week. It’s always good when you see him hit the ball in right-center field like that — hit it twice.”
Pedro Alvarez followed by ripping a double into left field to snap his 0-for-22 skid. It also marked his first hit since moving up to the cleanup spot last Saturday.
“I think early on he just wasn’t getting hits,” Hurdle said. “Last night was a little bit sideways for him. But tonight, I thought he put some excellent swings — especially later in the game. The double the opposite way. The last at-bat, three very good swings on time, took the walk…We’re going to show patience. We’re going to let him swing the bat. Gonna give him that freedom to go up and do it. I think the comfort builds.”
After Casey McGehee drew his second free pass to load the bases, Clint Barmes hit a sac fly to center off his former club to drive in the run.
“Pedro’s double to the opposite way,” Hurdle said. “We did some better base running today. We stole third. We were much better on the bases. A better complete game, except for the error. But we made some fantastic plays as well. Pedro really defended third base extremely well tonight.”
Right-hander Charlie Morton said after his last outing on Sunday against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park that he was going to make a tweak to his sinker. Morton allowed four runs over his 6.0 innings, two of those runs came from the long ball, and both were from right-handed bats. The 28-year-old has allowed four homers — all to righties — having only given up two to right-handers during the 2011 season (381 at-bats).
“Just minor things in my delivery — stay a little more on my backside, extra turn. I’m more rational then front to back, up and down,” Morton said on what he worked since his last outing. “That’s what we were trying to do, try to work a little more on just quitting down and staying more on my backside. It was good. I think it helped a lot.”
“I thought my sinker was better today then it was my last start.”
The first of the two runs that Morton allowed (one earned) came in the fifth inning. With one out, former Bucco Chris Snyder hit an infield grounder to third base. Pedro Alvarez’s throw to Casey McGehee sailed past the bag for an error, allowing Snyder to advance to second. After getting a ground out, Jordan Schafer hit a double to right to plate the un earned run.
“Truth be told, we probably could have given up less runs,” Hurdle said. “We helped him out scoring one, the ball just went off Tabata’s glove in left field.”
Morton worked himself into a jam in the sixth inning. After allowing three consecutive singles to start the frame, Justin Maxwell hit into a force out to erase the runner at third, however a run scored. Morton was able to escape the inning by inducing a double play to keep the game within one run.
“That’s big. That’s huge,” Morton said of the double play. “I just remember a game that I pitched against him in Houston where he came up to a pinch-hit situation and he hit the ball pretty good. It was nice to be able to get him out in a big situation.”
Overall, Morton allowed two runs (one earned) on seven hits over six innings. He walked one and didn’t strike out a batter while throwing 88 pitches, 54 for strikes.
“I thought Charlie was able to right the ship. He put 17 balls on the ground, 14 for outs,” Hurdle said. “That was real good to see. The pitch efficiency still has some room for improvement, but he battled…Charlie was good tonight. He was much better. We needed that.”