It’s a negative that the Pirates could only score eight runs in three games against the Houston Astros, baseball’s worst run-preventing team. It’s a negative that that they could only crack open four total hits on average starting pitcher Lucas Harrell, and needed 15 hitters Sunday to hit the ball out of the infield.
But when a Pirates batter finally hit one out of infield… boom. Pedro Alvarez roped Harrell’s first-pitch fastball to the opposite field, hooking just inside the left-field foul pole for a solo home run. Alvarez’s team-leading 8th homer got Pittsburgh (26-18) its first hit in the 5th inning and broke the scoreless tie in the Pirates’ 1-0 win.
“[Harrell] comes after you with his best stuff and you just have to be ready,” Alvarez said. “He’ll give you maybe one pitch to hit the whole game.”
Alvarez took advantage of that one pitch to hit possibly his shortest career home run over the “325” marker in left, two days after blasting a homer into the Allegheny River.
His just-barely home run was all the run support needed for Jeff Locke. The young starter continues to defy the stats that suggest he will regress from his early success, tossing seven shutout innings and scattering three hits for his fourth victory.
“I always feel happy when I’m pitching out of the windup for most of the day,” Locke said. “That’s where you want to be. That’s where I’m a little bit more deceptive with the turn.”
Aided by home plate umpire Todd Tichenor’s low strike zone, Locke notched four strikeouts and only two walks, allowing only one Astros baserunner to reach scoring position. Locke worked from behind quite well, throwing first-pitch strikes to just 12 of his 25 hitters. The left-hander’s season ERA drops to 2.73 after his 94-pitch scoreless outing.
“Those guys are a very, very aggressive ballclub,” catcher Michael McKenry said. “They’re gonna swing, so you’re never out of a count… [Locke] did a very good job with his offspeed pitches today.”
Locke also used his defense to frustrate the Astros’ hitters, retiring 7 of his last 13 batters on ground-ball outs to keep Houston off the scoreboard. The pivotal grounder was generated on Locke’s last pitch in the 7th, as Clint Barmes and Neil Walker turned the game’s only double play on Jimmy Paredes, who ran and beat out 6-4-3 double-play attempts in his two previous at-bats.
The Pirates’ only real chance for insurance runs came in the 6th inning. Travis Snider hit a one-out double to the North Shore Notch, then one batter later, Gaby Sanchez singled to center field. Snider was waved home with two outs, but center fielder Brandon Barnes’ throw beat him and catcher Carlos Corporan held strong while Snider called Mr. Plow. Harrell was strong on the mound for Houston (12-32), pitching seven innings and allowing just five baserunners.
Combine the effectiveness of Locke and Harrell, and the Pirates raised the Jolly Roger 144 minutes after first pitch for the quickest game either team has played all year.
“Harrell had his good stuff today,” McKenry said. “We were joking around about how he kept hitting the bottom of the knees. He was very good today, but Locke was better.”
Mark Melancon (on 13 pitches) and Jason Grilli (on 10 pitches) each completed a 1-2-3 inning to wrap up the Pirates’ series victory in front of 28,471 fans. The Bucs did not dominate the Astros as expected this series, getting their two victories by one run apiece, but they used the weekend to keep pace with Cincinnati for the first NL Wild Card.
We will likely see Andrew McCutchen back in center field for the team’s next game Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs. McCutchen was scratched after batting practice due to discomfort in his right knee, but manager Clint Hurdle said he was still available if needed.
“I was ready to get back there on the field to play,” McCutchen said.
The Pirates didn’t need their superstar center fielder on this day, though. Locke’s rhythm, an efficient defense, and one Pedro Alvarez swing made the Bucs into winners for the next 48 hours.