PITTSBURGH, PA — The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t out to make a statement. Whether people believe this team can contend in the National League Central this season or not, they are focused on each individual game, one day at a time. But how this team has been battling all season long has started to open some new eyes. While the pitching held the club in the games during the first month of the season, it’s been the offense that’s been on a tear lately, allowing the team to click on all cylinders.
“We’re not out to make any statements right now,” Manager Clint Hurdle said on the difference in the team this season compared to last year. “The season will define us. Everybody wants a special story every week. The season will define us, we’ve got to go out and compete. We’ve got to prepare. We’ve got to be ready to play. We play each series one game at a time and we’ll see where it takes us. But right now, the way we’re playing, it’s nice. We’re earning our way. Where it will be in a month, time will tell. We’ll continue to fight our way.”
The Pirates pounded out nine extra-base hits out of their 18 hits tonight — two triples, five doubles and two home runs against the Houston Astros. Pittsburgh has scored 50 runs over their last six games. To put that into perspective of how hot their bats have been, they didn’t score their 50th run of the season until the last game in April against Atlanta.
“We’re playing for a city, the goal is to re-bond this city with a ball club,” Hurdle said. “That’s one of the things those men take out there everyday. That’s a nice crowd there tonight on a Monday night. The crowd got loud late. This city is hungry for a winner. These guys are hungry to win. But we’ve got a whole bunch of National League teams in front of us trying to keep us from that and that’s the challenge we’re looking to embracing the rest of the way. ”
After a strong offensive campaign in the month of June — when they led all of baseball with 146 runs scored — the bats haven’t let up in July. The Pirates combined for just one hit over their first three innings off the Astros’ starter, but they connected for five straight to start the fourth inning, in which they plated four runs.
Garrett Jones took a first pitch fastball off the right field pole for a two-run shot in the fourth inning. It marked his 11th of the season and second in his last four games. But the lumber didn’t stop there. Neil Walker connected for a homer to right field, his fifth of the season, off Lyles. It marked the fifth time this season the club has pounded out back-to-back jacks and third in their last four games overall.
The new-age lumber company?
“You never know,” Jones said. “Hopefully. We’ve been swinging the bats well and we just want to keep it going. We’ve got a lot of games left. It’s a long season. Our confidence is high. We want to keep that going. Just keep building and putting W’s on the board.”
“It was cool to see Walker do it right after me. It was a great offensive game. The bats came alive. Everybody was swinging the bats well, barreling balls and scoring runs so it was a lot of fun.”
McGehee followed just shy of a home run, the ball bouncing off the scoreboard for a double. The third baseman scored on an RBI single from Clint Barmes.
In his first game back since exiting Saturday night’s game with a left wrist sprain, McCutchen picked up his second hit off Lyles — an RBI double ripped down the third base line. The extra-base hit scored Drew Sutton, who tripled. But the Bucs kept pounding extra-base hits out. Jones was next, hitting a RBI double into the notch in left-center field to plate the sixth run of the game. The third straight extra-base knock chased the starter from the game.
“Our lineup is amazing right now,” starter James McDonald said. “It’s like every guy is a tough out. Nobody is an easy out in our lineup right now. Everybody is swinging the bat. Everybody is on fire. The offense has picked up. I knew they would. All year I’ve been saying, ‘Just wait. Just wait. Be patient.’ This is it. This is what you guys are getting now. This offense is [what] you see.”
McGehee was next in the four-run inning. He picked up his second straight double of the game off the glove of a jumping Brian Bogusevic in deep right field. The double drove in two more runs in the fourth inning.
The Pirates tacked on a run off four straight hits off the Astros bullpen in the sixth. Jones’ third hit on the night snapped his 0-for-24 skid against left-handed pitching. Not since August 25, 2011 had Jones connected for a base knock off a southpaw.
“It wasn’t the best hit, but it was still a hit,” Jones said. “I was able to get that first one out of the way for the year. Hopefully I’ll get to face them a little bit more. Just something to build on.”
Two more runs scored on Walker’s double in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was the third straight hit with two-outs off the Astros reliever Fernando Rodriguez.
Pittsburgh pounded out 18 hits — just one shy of their season high of 19. Both McCutchen and Jones had four hit nights, McGehee with three of his own in the 11-2 win.
“You’ve got to go play the game because a team you don’t think is as good on paper,” Hurdle said of facing the 32-48 Astros. ” I reminded the guys before the series. You remember us going into some series last year when we were pretty much rolled up and done based on the fact that we didn’t have many wins the year before on the road, and we weren’t this good. All they’ve got to do is pitch a good game tonight and score one more run than us and they beat us. I reminded our guys, you’ve got to take every game as significance up here.”
McDonald Not Sharp, But Battles Despite Lack of Command
James McDonald has been so efficient as to not giving many free passes this season. Walks were a struggle for McDonald in 2011 when he combined to walk 78 over his 31 starts. On four occasions last year, McDonald gave up four walks to the opposing team. And on Monday at PNC, that old version of McDonald re-emerged.
McDonald has walked more than two batters just twice over his first 15 starts of the season, but walked a season-high five in the Pirates win. But there was a difference in McDonald this season — he didn’t let those big innings spiral out of control.
“I was happy the way I recovered,” McDonald said. “I think that’s a big difference between last year and this year. I would have let things start to spiral. I think this year I’m better at recovering, picking myself up and getting back into it.”
McDonald struggled with his command in the first inning. The right-hander issued a four pitch walk to start the game. After retiring his next two batters, McDonald issued his second free pass of the inning. The walks hurt McDonald as J.D. Martinez hit a bloop RBI single just over the head of Garrett Jones that dropped into right field to plate the first run. The right-hander followed by walking his third batter of the inning to load the bases. McDonald was able to leave the bases stranded after inducing a ground out. The right-hander needed 26 pitches in the frame.
“The game is not won in one inning,” McDonald said on what he learned from the outing. “You have to keep going. Keep going, keep going. Just try and keep your team in the game. You never know what can happen. The bats can explode like that, that’s why you’ve got to be competitive.”
After that first inning, what did McDonald find? His command.
“Throughout the game at points I was getting behind on guys,” McDonald said. “I kind of changed that a little bit. I got a little more aggressive. Things worked out. I had great defense behind me.”
The right-hander settled in after the lengthy first and struck out three of his next six batters. But he struggled again with the walks in the fourth.
Martinez connected for a double into the right-center field gap to lead off the fourth inning. After retiring his next two batters, the club decided to intentionally walk Jordan Schafer to face the Astros’ pitcher, Jordan Lyles. The right-hander drew a full count walk to load the bases, but a great defensive play by Casey McGehee at third base ended the inning.
McDonald didn’t have his best stuff tonight, but despite not the best command, the right-hander battled and limited the damage. After escaping the jam in the fourth, McDonald tossed a scoreless fifth before giving up a one-out solo-shot to Scott Moore in the sixth. Moore took a 2-0 fastball to right field for the fourth hit allowed by McDonald.
“It’s up to him to figure some things out from time to time,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “He was very slow and methodical early. He wasn’t sharp. Pitched himself into some tight situations. We were lucky to be only one run down. It seemed the four-run inning really sparked him. It was starting to get better. From that point on, there was down hill angle, there was finish to the fastball, breaking ball early, breaking ball late. A few changeups finally showed up. The package came together.”
Overall, McDonald allowed two runs on four hits over seven frames. He walked a season-high five, struck out four and threw 110 pitches, 64 for strikes. McDonald has not allowed more than seven hits in any of his 16 starts this season. The right-hander has posted just a 1.63 ERA at PNC Park this season.
Alvarez Out of Lineup Due to Leg Injury
Pedro Alvarez was out of the starting lineup on Monday due to the leg injury he suffered in Sunday’s game against St. Louis. The third baseman was replaced by Eric Fryer as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning after leading off with a single. Alvarez ran out the ball to first base, but felt cramps in his left legs due to the heat.
Alvarez was on the field earlier this afternoon running sprints in front of the Pirates training staff and bench coach Jeff Banister. Hurdle held him out of the lineup as his leg was sore today but was available off the bench later in the game if needed.
“The leg isn’t cramping up any longer,” Hurdle said. “The leg cramped up yesterday and the soreness that can come with that. He went out and did all his work and felt like he was close, but it might be a situation where one more day might put us in a better place.”
Alvarez’s injury is not considered serious and is expected back in the lineup on Tuesday.
“It’s a relief,” Hurdle said. “You never know when injuries are going to jump up on you, or what they’re going to bring. We try to manage them to the best of your ability. We’ll try to be proactive with both these guys and get them back on the field when it’s smart.”
Barajas Scratched From Lineup
Rod Barajas was penciled in the lineup this afternoon, but was a last minute scratch prior to the game. Barajas has made just one start since injuring his leg in Philadelphia on Monday. The catcher was diagnosed with a bone bruise after at a play at the plate with Jimmy Rollins in the bottom of the 1st inning.
“His knee did not act up before the game,” Hurdle said. “With a bone bruise, it can be close to feeling pretty good. Yesterday he felt good, today didn’t feel as good when he woke up out of bed. That’s kind of what you’re dealing with a bone bruise. Some days are just going to be better when you wake up. He could have pushed through it if he had to, but there’s no need for him to right now.”
With Barajas out of the lineup, Michael McKenry has been getting the starts behind the plate. McKenry homered three times over the seven-game road trip while going 11-for-25 at the plate. Pittsburgh’s backstops have a combined 13 home runs this season, which is tied for third-most in the National League.
“Didn’t think you’d be talking about that a month ago, did you?” Hurdle said with a smile due to both catchers hitting well in the month of June. “Isn’t it great what the season can bring? Because they were banging some drums early about what a wash out that was going to be. As you continue to give men opportunity, and you give them reps and they show up, they figure something’s out. Now you’re looking at the service back there, the RBI’s, the home runs, the ability to catch the ball.”
“As far as the caught stealing, we’re working on that part of it. We’re doing what we feel off the mound. The catchers are having to sacrifice some personal numbers throwing people out due to that. That hasn’t presented a big complication yet.