In the immediate aftermath of the second home run off the bat of Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips there was a brief sense of, “Here we go again,” as it relates to the creative ways the Pittsburgh Pirates have found to lose games in recent seasons.
The blast to straight-away center field tied the game 5-5 in the top of the seventh inning and brought the Reds back from what was at its peak a four run deficit. It was a moment of doubt for the Pirates’ faithful, but it was a very brief moment.
Andrew McCutchen led off the Pirates half of the seventh with a shot that landed just a few rows past the left field wall and put Pittsburgh ahead for good in the Pirates series-opening 6-5 win against the Reds. It was his second home run of the season and the first by a Pirate at PNC Park this season.
“He stayed back on that breaking ball and hit it good,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of McCutchen’s home run. “Breaking balls up in the zone, every once in a while, end up on the other side of the park. He’s an accomplished hitter. You saw the other guy (Phillips) hit two fast balls to dead center field and you don’t see that happen too often here either.”
McCutchen had seen several fastballs prior to the breaking ball he hit and said it did not matter to him what Cincinnati pitcher J.J. Hoover threw at it him in that situation.
“I know that if I get myself in the right hitting position I know I’m able to hit whatever pitch it is that may come,” he said. “I just use my hands and that’s it. That’s all I was trying to do — just be ready to hit. I was able to get a good pitch and I hit it out.”
The Pirates (4-6) jumped out to an early lead when Russell Martin singled to left field to bring Neil Walker around to score in the bottom of the first. Cincinnati (5-5) answered in its half of the second when Phillips took an A.J. Burnett mistake over the plate deep over the wall in center field.
The Bucs were back at it in the second, plating four runs when Walker and McCutchen had back-to-back hits that each results in two runs scoring. The Reds got single runs in the fourth and sixth innings before Phillips’ shot in the seventh evened the game.
The drama did not end with McCutchen’s home run. After Mark Melancon pitched another perfect eighth inning, Jason Grilli found himself staring down one of the best hitters on the planet — the Reds’ Joey Votto — with the tying run on base. The two battled before Votto eventually walked, bringing Phillips to the plate with a chance to hit his third home run of the game and cement his place as the most hated baseball player in Pittsburgh (for the time being, at least).
Phillips battled with Grilli just like Votto, running the count full before a breaking ball had him swinging and missing to end the game.
Hurdle said the combination of Melancon and Grilli has worked well for the Pirates so far this season. When the team has been in position to hang on for a win they have been the ones closing the door on the opposition.
“Melancon has come out as clean as anybody from the start of the season until now and Grilli is probably right behind him,” Hurdle said. “I like the way it has set up. Probably won’t be a fan of stretching Melancon out any more than that.”
Tony Watson (1-0) pulled off the “blown save/win” combination after serving up Phillips’ long ball in the seventh but remaining the pitcher of record when McCutchen hit his. Hoover (0-2) took the loss for the Reds, who will throw Johnny Cueto against Jeff Locke in tomorrow’s game.
Along with McCutchen, Starling Marte has been the most consistent presence in the Pirates lineup so far this season and that was on display against Friday evening at PNC Park. Marte opened the Pirates’ first inning with a single and then reached in the second after being hit by a pitch from the Reds’ Mike Leake before scoring on Walker’s single two batters later.
Breaking balls up in the zone, every once in a while, end up on the other side of the park. He’s an accomplished hitter. You saw the other guy hit two fast balls to dead center field and you don’t see that happen too often here either. It just goes to show you the importance of getting your hands back.
A.J. Burnett did not get the win Friday thanks to Phillips’ seventh inning shot, but his eight strikeouts inched him closer to the 2,000 strikeout milestone for his career. He entered Friday’s start with 1,990 and now is just two away from 2,000. His next scheduled start is Wednesday at home against St. Louis.
“It would mean a lot I guess,” Burnett said. “That’s a lot of Ks. Just goes to show you how good those guys that have 3,000 are. I’ve been around for a long time and I’m just now sniffing 2,000. It will be cool.”