PITTSBURGH, PA — Today marked the halfway point of the season. If the first half is any indicator for what is in store in the second part of the season, Pittsburgh Pirate fans and the city better buckle up, because it’s going to be a fun team to watch.
The club entered game action on the Fourth of July tied for first place in the National League Central with the Cincinnati Reds. After clawing back from a four-run deficit on Tuesday — the second comeback of the game being a walk off home run by new Bucco Drew Sutton — the Pirates reached a season-high eight games over .500. The last time they were this far above .500 was during the 1992 season.
“You get here for a reason,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Nobody hits you with a wand and you wake up in this spot. It hasn’t all been high fives and walk offs and giggles. There was some gnashing of teeth, rubbing of the head and just keep encouraging guys, keep pushing them forward.”
“Everybody is doing their part,” eighth inning man Jason Grilli said. “It’s been somebody different every game. That’s special. There’s a good undertone here. A lot of people may say we’re a bunch of nobodies — and I love that. I love rooting for the underdog. If people don’t take us seriously, it’s going to make it that much more fun.”
“Going into the All-Star break, the momentum that we have, I think is pretty good. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Case in point from last year. You learn from that. I think the feeling is good. It’s real good. There’s no denying that.”
That’s what makes this club better than the team in 2011, who also were in the hunt in July. Last year at this point, Pittsburgh was 41-40 and three games out of first place. But after injuries and a rough stretch, the club fell out of first and saw them slip under .500.
But that experience of the second half of last year has helped them mentally. The organization is also in a better place depth-wise with several lefty arms and players that are knocking on the door.
“We’re built better,” Hurdle said. “We have more experience. We have more depth across the board. We still have depth that’s been untapped in Triple-A if need be. The lessons learned from last year is as valuable as anything we have moving forward this year. I think that’s been in the number of one run games this year, the slower heartbeat we play. We’re playing better on the road. Nobody out there is caught up in the fact that we’re playing .500 ball. That’s not a topic of discussion out there. I do believe we’re in a much different place, and a much better place as we move forward in this season.”
In front of their seventh sellout of the season, the Pirates beat the Houston Astros, 6-4 — their third straight win to push them a season-high nine over .500. The players may not truly know the significance of finishing a winning team, how much the city of Pittsburgh wants to end the streak of 19 consecutive seasons, but Hurdle believes they are heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know if they understand how important it is for the city because they haven’t embraced, I haven’t embraced it for the last 19 years,” Hurdle said. “I know with talking to some people the significance of what’s going on for them…I got some emails where people were emotional about last night that they shared with me. That they haven’t felt that way in 20 years. That has meaning.”
“When you have joy in somebody’s life, whether it be through baseball or sport, it’s pretty significant. I think our guys are starting to get an understanding of it. But the depth, I don’t think we can understand. The impact, the difference that we can make for the city, giving them a competitive team, giving them a winning team, giving them a team that they’re proud of, yes, I do think they get that.”
Confidence Key as Pirates Battle for Their 23rd Comeback Victory
The Pirates showed their ability to battle back for their second straight game. What you see different in this club that you didn’t see as much during the offensive struggles in April, and even in the second part of the season last year, has been confidence.
“There is definitely more confidence in the dugout throughout the game, Hurdle said. “From the top of the lineup to the bottom of the lineup, everybody feels as though they can be a part of an inning.”
“The chemistry in the clubhouse has been great,” shortstop Clint Barmes said. “It’s been good, really from day one. We’ve got a great group of guys in here. Grinding through that first month, the fist two months really. I think that maybe brought us even closer. The guys have really been working to pick each other up and playing to win. We’re doing everything we can to win that day. Showing up everyday knowing we have a chance to win has been a lot of fun.”
After trailing by two runs, the club rallied back off the Astros in the bottom of the second inning. A leadoff walk from Casey McGehee and an aggressive knock to center field stretched Garrett Jones a double. The two bagger for Jones was just his second hit off a southpaw this season.
“Just having good posture at the plate,” Jones said of his adjustments that’s allowed him to be on an offensive tear. “Just let the barrel come through the hitting zone nice and free and easy. I’m able to get that inside pitch a little better. Just keeping and making adjustments. I’m just trying to adjust to how the pitchers are pitching and just be a consistent hitter and consistently contribute on a day-to-day basis.”
Pedro Alvarez followed by loading the bases with the second free pass. Michael McKenry hit a sac fly to center field. What came next was a great heads up play from shortstop Clint Barmes.
Barmes drove in Jones with a single to left field. After he noticed that Alvarez didn’t score on the single, Barmes put himself into a rundown between second and first base to allow Alvarez to score with the pitchers spot up next. The run from Alvarez was the go-ahead run.
“It worked out,” Barmes recalled of the play. “Off the bat, running down to first, I started to shut it down. By the time I read the throw, I tried to start it back up again. At that point, I thought it was a bad idea. It ended up working out, but it wasn’t my plan. I should have stayed at first. That’s what I normally would do, but I saw that the throw was high. I gave it an effort to get to second, but I wasn’t going to get there. By staying in the rundown, Pedro got a good read and was able to score. Not the smartest of base running on my part.”
The Pirates bats continued to swing against starter lefty Dallas Keuchel in the fourth inning. With one out, Jones picked up his second hit of the game and Alvarez drew his second base on balls. Michael McKenry ripped an RBI double to left field to drive in his second run of the game.
“Anytime you can help the team, whether it’s an extra out or RBI, whatever it may be, it’s awesome,” McKenry said.
The bats heated back up in the seventh inning pushing two more runs across the plate. Back-to-back singles from Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen started the inning. After Jones reached first on an error to load the bases, Alvarez ripped a two-run single to center field off Houston’s lefty reliever. The third baseman, who leads the NL in home runs at the hot corner, has tallied 12 RBI over his last four games while hitting for a near .400 clip over his last three weeks.
“You’re seeing a guy finding his rhythm and his confidence,” Hurdle said. “Foot down, hold the position and then fire the hands on the barrel. A breaking ball from a left-hander — it was very pretty. Very pretty swing.”
How Does Leroux Fit With the Big League Club?
Right-handed reliever Chris Leroux’s rehab assignment ends today. But with the way the Pirates bullpen has been very effective this season, where does Leroux fit in their plans?
In 11.1 innings pitched with Triple-A Indianapolis, Leroux has posted 3.97 ERA with five walks and eight strikeouts. Leroux was placed on the disabled list prior to the season after suffering a strained right pectoral muscle during an exhibition game in Philadelphia.
The right-hander is on the 60-day disabled list, so the club would have to make a roster move in order to recall him to the big leagues. Leroux is out of options, so if the Pirates don’t add him, another team could claim him off waivers. Leroux made 23 appearances with Pittsburgh last season and posted a 2.88 ERA over 25.0 innings.
“Right now, he’s at least finished up much stronger than he started because there were a lot of consistencies early on,” Hurdle said on reports of how he’s rehab has been going. “He’s probably at least pitching now the best he has during his rehab. That’s what I’ve got for you.”