Final batter Josh Harrison was the hero. Tapped to pinch-hit for the Pirates in the 9th inning of a tie game, Harrison turned on the third fastball he saw. The ball flew and flew just over the right-center-field fence to beat the Miami Marlins 4-3 Tuesday night.
“I was just watching [right fielder Giancarlo] Stanton’s reaction. I knew he wasn’t gonna catch it,” Harrison said after team leader A.J. Burnett slapped him with a celebratory shaving-cream pie. “When it didn’t come back in, I knew it was gone… Getting a walk-off hit is something that not everybody gets to do.”
The game-winner on Mike Dunn’s 1-1, high-and-away fastball sealed Pittsburgh’s victory to maintain the best record in baseball. But there were also 73 other plate appearances in this game and 264 pitches. We would be remiss not to discuss them.
Harrison’s home run would have been a less meaningful solo shot had it not been for Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates’ three-time All-Star flashed two huge plays to make the walk-off possible.
McCutchen’s Two Huge Plays
After Neil Walker’s ground-ball single in the 3rd inning, McCutchen stepped in with two runners on, two outs and his team down 3-0. Young Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez had been carving up the Pirates about as he had 11 days prior (6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K).
“I was trying not to let that happen again,” McCutchen said.
McCutchen changed that. He smoked a first-pitch fastball opposite field off the right-center-field wall. Starling Marte and Walker scored on the two-RBI double to cut Miami’s lead to 3-2.
“I knew I was gonna get a lot of fastballs,” McCutchen said. “So I was ready to hit it. We were able to get two big runs.”
Four pitches later, Pedro Alvarez smashed a pitch over the head of center fielder Jake Marisnick. McCutchen touched home to tie the game. He turned around to see the 235-pound Alvarez barrel into third base for his first triple of the season.
Jeff Locke’s Hard Luck
The good fortune Jeff Locke saw in the first half has turned sour. No one strands 83% of baserunners and sees his defensive convert 77% of balls in play into outs over a full season.
But even by law of averages standards, Locke had some rotten luck Tuesday night. He generated 10 groundballs but 5 turned into hits. In the 2nd inning alone he saw three straight grounders become singles for the Marlins’ first run.
Locke’s two runs allowed in the 3rd inning were his own fault, though. He served up four straight singles to the heart of the Miami lineup: Mike Lucas and Giancarlo Stanton, then line-drive RBI hits from Logan Morrison and Donovan Solano. It was time for pitching coach Ray Searage to have a chat with his young starter trailing 3-0.
“Ray will come chirp at me once in a while and [tell me] I gotta just pick the pace up a little bit,” Locke said. “I kind of agree with him because that helps me get my tempo. Sometimes I might be working real quick and sometimes there’s times where I need to step back and take a breath.”
Whatever works. The starter escaped the jam on a bunt popout, infield fly and groundout back to Locke. After Searage’s visit, Locke allowed only one hit over his final 14 batters.
Jeff Locke Season Stats
- Through July 1: 3.79 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, 83.3% LOB, .228 BABIP, 2.15 ERA
- Through tonight: 3.70 FIP, 4.09 xFIP, 82.2% LOB, .261 BABIP, 2.47 ERA
Don’t confuse Locke’s regression since his All-Star first half as a decline in his performance. His fielding-independent numbers have actually been better the last five weeks. What has heightened his ERA are the luck stats: runners stranded and batting average on balls in play.
“I haven’t changed up a whole lot of things,” Locke said. “I continue to do what works, I pitch righties the same, I pitch lefties the same until I need to make an adjustment.
“I think surely other teams are starting to notice that a little more, but I’m not going to go away from what I do well.”
The Cutch Catch
Locke’s third walk in the 6th inning meant it was time to go. Vin Mazzaro entered to strand the two runners his starter walked. In the 7th, Mazzaro allowed a two ground-ball singles in front of batter Adeiny Hechavarria.
The second-year hitter tagged Mazzaro’s slider and drove it to left-center. Center fielder McCutchen quickly jumped, sprinted and dove to steal a possible RBI hit and keep the game tied.
“I knew he hit it off the end of the bat, so I just was trying to get myself in a good position,” McCutchen said. “If you’re trying to jump at a certain area, or if there’s a line, you say I’m gonna jump that line, you can pretty much do it.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says his center fielder has improved from last year’s Gold-Glove-winning season.
“That’s as big a play as we had on the defensive side on the ball,” Hurdle said. “He’s playing as good a center field as I’ve ever seen him.”
Bullpen Holds it Down
After the stellar grab and Pedro Alvarez’s throwing error, Mazzaro generated a fly ball from Jeff Mathis to leave the bases loaded. The Marlins left 11 runners on base.
“Mazzaro’s numbers with inherited runners are extremely good this season,” Hurdle said as the right-hander’s strand rate passed 79%. “I thought his breaking ball would play.”
Hurdle went to the right options Tony Watson and Bryan Morris to retire the final six hitters they faced and give the offense a chance to earn the Pirates’ 26th comeback win.
Former Pittsburgh reliever Chad Qualls loaded the bases on the first three batters after Henderson Alvarez (7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 6 K) exited. Dunn came in to freeze Pedro Alvarez on a fastball to strike him out then got Russell Martin to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Hurdle chose Harrison to lead off the 9th more for his speed than his power (“I didn’t have a homer,” the manager said) but the fast utility man was happy to seal Pittsburgh’s 68th win via the home run.
“That’s how baseball is funny,” Harrison said. “You never know what to expect.”