PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Pirates were coming off a huge win on Thursday night in Cincinnati where they took 2-of-3 from the first place Reds in the National League Central. And after the Bucco bats broke out for four runs on 10 hits off the Kansas City Royals in Interleague play, Pittsburgh remain just two games out of first place.
While it’s been the pitching that’s held the team near the top of their division for most of the year, the team has finally seemed to click on all cylinders. There was evidence of that on Friday night at PNC Park. Solid starting pitching, which was followed by shutdown innings from the ‘pen and the offense swinging against the Royals equaled the win. The Pirates have won 10 of their last 13 games and so far in June are hitting for a team .268 average.
“We’ve taken the field expecting to win since day one,” said Neil Walker, who picked up three hits on the night. “Our offensive approach hasn’t been where it needed to be to do that and our pitching has kept us in so many games, and our defense has kept us in a lot of games too. We go out there every night trying to win and we expect to win.”
The Pirates were able to get on the board first off the Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar. Neil Walker connected for a one out single into the gap in right. With two outs, Garrett Jones ripped an RBI double off the wall in right-center field to give the Pirates the early 1-0 lead. It marked Jones’ eighth double of the season. Jones has been swinging a hot bat lately. He has hit safely in seven straight games, going 12-for-34 with three homers and eight RBI during that stretch.
Rod Barajas’ started off the next inning by hitting a line drive single into right field. Eric Hosmer, in his first Major League start in right field, booted the ball for an error. The mistake cost the Royals as Clint Barmes hit a RBI knock into left field. Barajas, who isn’t known for his speed, raced home from second base and dove around the plate to avoid the tag.
“Everybody knows he’s one of the fastest guys on the team,” Walker said joking. “When you slide like that, you’re not going to get out many times at home. Plays like that have been huge. These are the small things we have to do to win ballgames.”
“Pure athleticism in its rarest form,” Hurdle said. “The guy has been around the block a couple times. I think that’s called a swim move in football. I don’t even think he knew he had that move. It worked. It was obviously a gamble that we hopefully don’t take anytime soon.”
After Bedard sac bunted Barmes to third base, Walker came through with yet another two-out RBI hit. Two-out hits have been huge for the Pirates this season.
For the third straight inning, the Pirates were swinging off Hochevar. With one out, Pedro Alvarez hit a double over the head of their center fielder Jeff Francoeur. Jose Tabata followed with an infield single to put runners on the corners. Tabata attempted to swipe second base, but got caught in a run down. Alvarez took advantage of the opportunity and took home plate.
“We got our pocket picked on first base,” Hurdle said. “At least Jose was able to stay engaged in a run down. And Alvarez made the best read on when to go…I think if both teams had to do it over, we both would have done it better, to perform it better but we were able to steal a run right there.”
“We’re playing good baseball right now,” Walker said of the 4-2 win. “[Erik Bedard] went out there and threw a great game tonight. We had some timely hitting and played some good defense. When we do that, and we get some hits and score some runs, we’re going to come out on top most times because of our pitching.”
This Year Just Feels Different
Entering the Pirates’ 57th game of the 2011 season, Pittsburgh sported a 27-29 record. This year’s club may be just a few games better (29-27), but things feel different.
“Last year there was a lot to put in,” Hurdle said. “Just a lot to put in as far as me getting to know people, getting to know [pitching coach] Ray [Searage], the coaches. Now, I think I have a better understanding on the foundation that’s in place with my coaches, with the players. I know our personnel group, their skill sets better. I think now, I’m able to do a little bit more coaching from a vantage point.”
But it’s not just Hurdle getting more familiar. The club is much improved in 2012. The bullpen is ranked second in the National League in ERA, and the starting staff has been one of the best in the Majors. While the offense struggled to start the year, the bats have been red hot over their last 10 games.
“I think significantly the additions that we made to the starting rotation made us stronger,” Hurdle said. “The bullpen, the guys continue to be without ego out there. Just getting the ball to Joel [Hanrahan]. That mentality. It’s fun to watch take place. The challenges that we’ve had offensively, to continue to battle through it and not let us bog down, or not let their be a division in the core out there. But everybody still rallies around another. It’s been fun to watch, scratch and claw and fight for whatever we can get.”
Bedard Bounces Back
Left-hander Erik Bedard was charged with five runs over just 3.2 innings the last trip to the mound in Milwaukee. On Friday against the Royals he was able to bounce back with a seven inning performance. The seven innings was the longest outing he has pitched since April 22 against St. Louis (also 7.0).
“Just what we needed,” Hurdle said. “It was good to get seven out of him. Two runs, he got nicked in one inning. He was working ahead. 17 hitters retired on three pitches or less, which helped his efficiency to get through seven. They’ve got a lineup that can swing it. They can hurt you in a hurry and he was able to stay away from the barrel pretty much throughout his outing. He was good. We needed him to be good. It was good to see him back in better form.”
Bedard didn’t allow a hit over his first two innings, but with one-out in the 3rd inning walked his third batter of the game. Alex Gordon came around to score after Yuniesky Betancourt hit an RBI double to deep center field. With two outs, Mike Moustakas drove in a run with a single to left to plate the second run.
From there, Bedard scattered three hits over his next four innings. Overall, the lefty allowed two runs on five hits over seven frames. He walked three and struck out five while throwing 98 pitches, 68 for strikes.
“It’s always nice to go six, seven and help the bullpen,” Bedard said. “The biggest thing is you don’t want to wear out your bullpen and I tried to do that.”
Barmes Showing Signs After Adjustments
Shortstop Clint Barmes has struggled to start the season. So much in fact that Hurdle unplugged the veteran for several games to work on his swing. The approach was similar to what the club worked on with Rod Barajas, who took off with the bat.
Although it’s still a small sample size, Barmes, too has looked much better at the plate. Barmes hit just .149 in April, but over his last four games the infielder has gone 6-for-13 (.462 avg) with two doubles, a home run and five RBI. One of those doubles came off the unhittable Aroldis Chapman of the Reds. The extra base hit started the rally and scored the eventual winning run in the 10th.
“I see his swing better,” Hurdle said. “I do see him getting his swing off. Hitting fastballs. Not chasing as much. Those were the big things that we wanted to address. He’s put a lot of hard work in. He deserves a lot of credit.”