Tonight wasn’t the type of game you’d normally expect the Pirates to win. It’s not the type of matchup you’d expect any team to win. On one side you had the best team in baseball, with a pitcher who entered the game with 20.1 shutout innings to start the season. On the other side you had a team that has been very inconsistent this year, with a pitcher who has had low velocity to start the year and was hit hard in his last outing.
It didn’t look good on paper heading into the game, but the Pirates took the win 3-1. There were two things that stood out to me which led to tonight’s victory.
The biggest was the performance of James McDonald. He stepped up with one run on two hits in six innings, and impressively struck out nine hitters. The run came in a crazy second inning. McDonald hit the first batter, gave up a double, then issued a walk to load the bases. After a three pitch strikeout, McDonald gave up another walk to bring in the lone run. The walk came against the number eight hitter, Andrelton Simmons. McDonald followed that by striking out Paul Maholm on three pitches, then getting B.J. Upton to strike out on three more pitches.
The velocity was also up a bit for McDonald. He still dipped into the upper 80s, but was mostly sitting 91-92, and was hitting 93 a few times. In his first three starts of the year McDonald has seen his velocity drop. In all of his starts from 2011-2013, his average velocity in those first three games ranked as the 1st, 2nd, and 4th lowest. He wasn’t touching the 94-95 range, but the slight increase tonight, and the overall average increase was a positive sign. An even better sign was the dominance from the nine strikeouts. That matched his total over his first three starts.
Another thing that stood out was the construction of the lineup. The key here was obviously Gaby Sanchez, who came up big with the two run home run off Maholm, which would eventually decide the game. Coming into the game, Sanchez was 1-for-12 on the season against right-handers, and 3-for-11 against left-handers. He’s pretty established as a platoon player, and in his career he has an ISO of .190 and an OPS of .865 against left-handers. Having him bat in the middle of the order against left-handers isn’t a bad call.
One move that didn’t lead to any runs tonight was having Russell Martin at third base. That allowed the Pirates to sit Pedro Alvarez against a left-hander, and got Martin’s bat in the lineup against a left-hander. Last year Martin had a .226/.356/.524 line against lefties. That OBP and .298 ISO are very impressive, and should have Martin in the lineup against lefties at all times. The Pirates didn’t score any runs as a result of Martin playing third, but he did go 1-for-2 with two walks. Michael McKenry went 1-for-3 behind the plate. If that combination of results happens more often, it should lead to runs.
After McDonald came out, the bullpen took over and remained strong. Tony Watson threw a scoreless seventh inning, and then Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli did their thing. Melancon pitched a shutout inning, and now has just one earned run in 11 innings on the season. Grilli struck out the side for his sixth save of the year, and has yet to give up a run on the season in seven innings.
The Pirates are pretty comfortable right now in the final two innings of the game, but could definitely use some comfort in that seventh inning. Watson stepped up tonight, and he and Jared Hughes seem to be the go-to guys for that role. Watson isn’t having a horrible season, and the lack of comfort in the seventh inning might be more of a testament to Melancon and Grilli and how automatic they’ve been, rather than a reflection on the rest of the bullpen.
The Pirates have now taken two of three from the Braves, and have won eight of their last 11 games. The two teams finish their four game series tomorrow at 1:35 PM with Jonathan Sanchez going up against Kris Medlen. That’s another matchup that looks to be a huge advantage for Atlanta on paper, with Medlen off to a strong start, and Sanchez coming off a horrible outing. That should also feature a more normal lineup, since Medlen is a right-hander, and the Pirates won’t have to sit Pedro Alvarez or Travis Snider against him.