Wandy Rodriguez returned from injury Friday for the Pittsburgh Pirates and promptly mowed down the hottest team in baseball.
Rodriguez was sharp from the beginning and allowed just one hit in seven innings and combined with Mark Melancon and Vin Mazzarro to face the minimum of 27 batters in the Pirates’ 6-0 win against the Braves at PNC Park.
Of the 21 batters Rodriguez faced, he either threw a first-pitch strike or got the batter to swing 15 times and used that advantage to go after guys and work ahead in the count.
“The key was throwing the fastball and locating a really good spot all the time,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “I felt comfortable because I was throwing the first-pitch fastball for a strike.”
The secret to beating Atlanta this season, it would appear, is keeping the Braves off the scoreboard entirely. In their three losses, the Braves have been shut out each time. Rodriguez had not pitched since leaving in the third inning against Arizona last Monday and said at first he was a little worried about re-injuring his left hamstring, but once he settled in, that worry went away.
“11 days down? That’s as sharp as you’d ever want to see a guy,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “From the start, from pitch No. 1 to the 82nd pitch that he threw. Fastball command, downhill plane, breaking ball, both sides of the plate. Just excellent. Very aggressive. Really good with the first-pitch strike, worked ahead and minimized any deep counts against a good hitting team. That was just what we needed.”
The Pittsburgh offense continued to find its way Friday. The Pirates tagged veteran pitcher Tim Hudson early and often and got into Atlanta bullpen after just four innings.
Last year, the Pirates depended on the long ball, but this team has been finding ways to manufacture runs in other ways to supplement the occasional round-tripper.
That was on display Friday when you take a look at how Pittsburgh scored its six runs against Atlanta.
Pedro Alvarez hit his second home run in as many days with a bomb over the right field bleachers off Hudson in the third for two runs, after Neil Walker led off the inning with a double. Russell Martin followed that with a double of his own and was brought in later in the inning on a Jose Tabata double.
In the fifth, Tabata started the inning by taking a walk, followed by a Travis Snider single and an Andrew McCutchen walk to load the bases. Cleanup hitter Garrett Jones did what cleanup hitters are supposed to do when the first three guys in the lineup reach base and smacked a two-run single to left field. McCutchen went to third on the play and scored when an Anthony Varvaro pitch got by catcher Gerald Laird.
The first five of the Pirates’ nine hits were for extra bases, which just a few weeks ago was unheard of with this team. Players have started to get comfortable in the batter’s box and Hurdle has set a lineup that has been consistent and allowed some players to flourish.
Starling Marte, Snider, McCutchen, Jones and Walker have all been hitting much better during the current homestand, but Alvarez and Martin seemed a bit behind the players ahead of them in the lineup. In the two games against the Braves, both Alvarez and Martin have been hitting the ball hard with a combined three home runs between them.
With their production on the back end of the lineup, Hurdle is finally getting to see what this year’s team is capable of when things start to click.
“I really believe the offense from top to bottom has a chance to connect very, very well,” Hurdle said. “When your 6 and 7 hitters are Alvarez and Martin, compared to where we’ve been in the past, our lineup is stretched out. Our lineup reaches deeper than it has since I’ve been here.”
If you’re going to Saturday’s game (Cutch bobblehead night!) it’s worth knowing that proceeds from the 50/50 raffle at PNC Park will go toward OneFundBoston.org, benefiting victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
It’s also worth knowing the forecast calls for cold weather, so dress accordingly if you venture to the North Shore for the return of Paul Maholm to PNC Park.