From Pedro Alvarez homering into the Allegheny River to Garrett Jones homering into the center field bushes, the Pirates got the natural environment involved in their eighth-straight win Saturday night. It contrasted with the supernatural – the Bucs reaching 50 wins in June for the first time in franchise history and maintaining baseball’s best record.
A 2-1 victory in front of a record fifth-straight PNC Park sellout showed an unnatural baseball fever developing in front of the Pittsburgh skyline. And the players feel it.
“We’re playing for ourselves, but there’s about 40,000 people tonight,” closer Jason Grilli said. “It’s just awesome to see everybody dusting off their Pirates shirts and coming out in droves to finally get what they’ve been wanting for so long.”
Starter Francisco Liriano’s offspeed stuff was a force of nature itself, generating 9 Brewers swings-and-misses and helping the Pittsburgh lefty to six strikeouts and his 5th quality start in June. Pitching strong middle innings almost allowed Liriano to go for a season-long start, but he allowed three hits and his only run in his 6th and final inning.
“It means a lot to me,” Liriano said. “Every five days, just trying to give it everything I have.”
Offense was hard for the Pirates to – ahem – run into aside from the left-handed home runs. Rookie Donovan Hand looked like a natural as he kept the Pirates at bay over his five innings, though he did get his first MLB loss in the start. Only three Pittsburgh baserunners got into scoring position on Hand and no inning saw more than one hit.
But Alvarez and Jones showed the power that has become second nature for them. Alvarez crushed a 1-2 curveball over the stands, through a tree and into the Allegheny to open the scoring and notch his 20th home run, only one behind NL leaders Carlos Gonzalez and Domonic Brown. Jones’ homer to lead off the 4th simply kept traveling and traveling until it found leaves. Starling Marte’s 3rd-inning double (which could have been a triple if Marte were not about to lap Liriano on the bases) was the Pirates’ only other extra-base hit.
Naturally, it wasn’t easy for Liriano with a small lead. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Liriano was “challenged” by the Brewers’ righty-heavy lineup, especially Carlos Gomez grabbing a triple to the Notch and infield single, but the starter got strikeouts and scoreless frames in each of his first five innings. His outing kept the Pirates’ team ERA at an MLB-best 3.15 this season.
“It’s all about location when I’m pitching here,” Liriano said, as he allowed no walks after his first batter. “Every time I pitch against the Brewers, it’s a battle for me.”
Liriano said he could have gone another inning, but it’s in Hurdle’s nature to go to his stellar bullpen. Tony Watson went 1-2-3 in the 7th. Mark Melancon collected two strikeouts and a scoreless 8th. Then Jason Grilli needed only six pitches to rebound from a three-runs-allowed struggle Sunday, get his league-leading 27th save and wrap up the half-century wins mark in front of 38,438 cheering fireworks-turned-baseball fans.
“Sellout crowds, we’ve been waiting for that,” Grilli said. “I’m excited and elated to be in the situation where that energy, just soaking it. It’s going in to me.”
And it’s going into the Pirates’ success. The Bucs are now 20 games above .500, have won 10 of their last 12 games and clinched a third-straight series victory against a Brewers team that had gone 69-24 against them over the previous six seasons. Pittsburgh has built a 10-game cushion for a playoff spot as it enters the season’s halfway point following Sunday’s game.
Seems like something out of The Natural, eh?
Although we lost AJ Burnette and Wandy Rodriguez early in June, this team has gone 13-4 over that period and are riding an 8 game winning streak with only 2 of those wins coming at PNC. We need Burnett and Rodriguez, but the pitching staff has really stepped up like I have never seen before, and the hitters led by Pedro Alvarez are hitting like we all hoped they would at the beginning of the season. We could still see improvement out of some of the Bucs, but it has truly been a total team effort. I know at times he has not been the most visible guy hitting, but Russell Martin has provided a professional leadership to the pitching staff, and teams think twice or three times before they try to steal. He has been a real solid player for the Pirates, and gives off a type of tough guy presence needed by a team of young players. We will finish the first half of the season with the best record in the majors, and have 9 home games/3 road games prior to the All Star Break. We also have a day off tomorrow and another in the following week – hopefully we can limp through and allow Burnett and Rodriguez another two weeks. Burnett is probably only a week away at most, but we’ll see how it goes.