The Pittsburgh Pirates are running away from the National League Central — literally.
In the 5th inning of Wednesday’s 5-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, Starling Marte used his game-breaking speed to create the tying run. Neil Walker, who had already homered, took a critical extra base in the 8th inning and set himself up to score the go-ahead run. Thanks to five shutout innings from the Pirates’ bullpen, the victory puts them 2.5 games ahead of the Cards in the Central division.
“To give yourself those opportunities… find a way to tie it back up, that’s what we’ve been doing all season,” Walker said.
Locke Labors for Four Innings
What the Pirates have not done all season is find themselves having to bail out starting pitcher Jeff Locke, who had his worst start of the year. The All-Star lefty allowed four runs for the first time since April, pitched only four innings for the first time in 2013 and gave up 10 hits for the first time in his brief MLB career.
Locke’s sparkling season ERA went from 2.15 to 2.36, a seemingly inevitable regression provided by the bad luck of six ground-ball hits and nine total singles.
“They were hitting the balls where guys weren’t,” Locke said with a laugh. “That wasn’t working for me… Missed location on some pitches.”
It started right away. Locke gave up two ground-ball singles in the 1st inning, then Matt Holliday lined an RBI single. After Locke struck out David Freese for the second out, Daniel Descalso bounced a 2-2 pitch past Walker to put St. Louis up 2-0.
More in the 3rd: Holliday led off by smashing a single off the top of the right-field wall, so far the umpires reviewed to see if it was a home run. Two batters later, Descalso reached on a dribbling infield single and Tony Cruz earned the RBI on a fielder’s choice grounder to second.
Walker stepped in to take a run back. Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, a familar foe from 14 previous plate appearances, hung a curveball just a bit up in the zone for Walker to crush for his 7th home run, cutting St. Louis’ lead to 3-2.
“Most of the time tonight he was down in the zone with [his breaking ball],” Walker said. “It was just one of those where instinctually you see it kind of pop out of his hand and it just kind of comes back to your barrel.”
In Locke’s 4th and final inning, Carlos Beltran doubled to left (the only extra-base hit Locke allowed) and scored on Holliday’s RBI single, his game-high third hit. The Pirates got it back in the bottom half of the frame when Clint Barmes ropes an RBI double to right.
Feets Don’t Fail Me Now
Next inning, it was time for Marte’s legs to do their work. The speedster scored the first Pirates run after drawing a shocking walk off Wainwright, since Marte rarely draws four balls and Wainwright so rarely throws them to righties. In the 5th, he laid down a one-strike bunt single and just beat the throw to first base. Marte swiped second for his team-leading 31st stolen base, then took third on Walker’s groundout. Next batter Andrew McCutchen hit a flyball to center, Marte roamed off the base then retreated to tag and score on the sacrifice fly. Tie game all thanks to the wicked fast leadoff hitter.
“That’s why he have him up there,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s growing up in front of us. He takes his role very personally as well. When he doesn’t get on and he gets into one of the ruts like the one he just came out of, he takes it personally.”
Vin Mazzaro and Tony Watson (who struck out three batters) each pitched two scoreless innings, keeping the score tied for the Pirates’ 8th-inning opportunity. Trevor Rosenthal entered in relief of Wainwright, who was okay in allowing nine baserunners and four runs over seven innings. Walker led off by lining a single to right, then two batters later Pedro Alvarez looped an opposite-field fly to the edge of the left-field warning track. Walker took advantage of the chance to tag up and move to second base.
“He’s probably been over-agressive at times,” Hurdle said. “It’s a good baseball play.”
A better baseball play was Russell Martin lining a single to left-center, bringing Walker around to score the eventual winning run. The Pirates are 5th in the NL in FanGraphs’ baserunning stat, with Marte, Walker and McCutchen shining as the three most productive runners.
Feels Like The First Time
Walker’s go-ahead run handed a save opportunity to Mark Melancon, his first at PNC Park since taking the closer job. Melancon got goosebumps as he entered to a standing ovation from most of the assembled 31,679 fans, but he looked more like a grizzled vet than a nervous first-timer in the role. The All-Star reliever punctuated his 1-2-3 save by his freezing Descalso for the game-ending strikeout.
“With a little adrenaline and some extra oomph,” the newly-mustachioed Melancon said. “It’s good to see everybody out there.”
The Bucs take baseball’s best record into August, plus they have the almost-unthinkable opportunity to hand St. Louis its 8th straight loss, go 3.5 games ahead in the Central and be the first team to sweep the Cardinals in a five-or-more-game series since the New York Giants did it in 1916.
“Of course it feels good to take four in a row, but we’ve still got a lot of baseball left against these guys,” Walker said. “Right now they’re not playing their best baseball, and I know that can change in a matter of 24 hours.”
But a historic run could be completed in those 24.