It would be difficult to describe all the important events of the Pirates’ 10-9 extra-innings victory to sweep the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Frankly, any such description would not do justice to the most exciting game of the 2013 season.
Instead of trying to re-tell all that happened, let’s treat this win like I try to treat every game: a chance to learn more about this Pirates team that is so fascinating, so exciting.
1. Charlie Morton is still Ground Chuck — But that can be dangerous.
We are only three outing into his 2013 season, but it appears the Pirates’ starter is once again becoming Charlie Morton: Lord Of The Ground Balls. A total of 64% of the balls opposing hitters put into play have been grounders, which would be far and away the highest rate of any MLB starter if Morton had enough innings. That is an overall good thing: groundball pitchers allow fewer hits and extra-base hits on balls in play. And if Morton combines that ability with more strikeouts and good control, he can be a very effective starter.
Sunday’s game represented the downside to being Ground Chuck: errors and holes in the infield. Morton drew five ground balls in the 2nd inning, but was thwarted by a sequence of Neil Walker’s glove-flip throwing error, Pedro Alvarez’s fielding error, Anaheim’s J.B. Shuck cutting a grounder through the diamond and Peter Bourjos sliding hard to break up a double play. He got the grounders, but Morton and the Pirates were suddenly down 5-1 based solely on the bad luck that can happen on groundballs. Granted, Morton made enough of his own troubled Sunday by passing out five walks, but his final line would have looked a lot prettier without the miscues.
2. Pedro Alvarez is in his June Groove.
The sun was shining in Southern California, which juiced up Alvarez’ solar-powered bat. His first time up, Alvarez cranked out his 19th home run, becoming the first opposing player in nearly 10 years to homer in all three games of a series in Anaheim. He added another shot in the 10th inning, this one a leadoff double misplayed by center fielder Mike Trout to start the four-run frame.
So now the All-Star Pedro Alvarez talk begins in earnest, but don’t let the discussion supersede the tangible contributions he has made to the Pirates’ recent success. The Bucs are 6-2 over his eight-game hitting streak, during which time Alvarez has a 1.340 OPS and five home runs. He is still striking out too much but is now second in the National League in home runs behind Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez (21). If the Pirates can get baserunners in front of Alvarez while he’s still streaking, the wins will keep coming.
3. Tony Sanchez and Duke Welker are ready to contribute when they return.
It’s unlikely Sanchez or Welker will remain with the Pirates far past today’s Major League debuts. Sanchez may be sent back down after the Seattle series to fine tune his catching defense, and Welker may simply be the casualty of the return of Jeanmar Gomez or Wandy Rodriguez. But both showed they should be called on again later in the season. Sanchez passed his first at-bat with a flying line drive that got stuck in the scoreboard for a double instead of being a possible RBI. Welker pitched his 8th inning 1-2-3, including a strikeout of Chris Iannetta in which the batter did nothing more than stare at two sliders and a 98-mph fastball.
4. Travis Snider has The Clutch Gene™
Alvarez, Starling Marte, Gaby Sanchez and Russell Martin (off the bench, including his own clutch two-out double in the 9th) all collected two hits in the winning effort. But Snider specifically flashed his distinct Clutchness™ in the 10th inning after he had left five runners on base in the regular ol’ innings.
Jepsen intentionally walked Neil Walker then unintentionally walked Gaby Sanchez to draw Snider with the bases loaded. Snider worked to a 3-1 hitter’s count but would not settle for being walked as the go-ahead RBI. Jepsen put a fastball low and away, and Snider knocked it opposite field into the grass for the go-ahead run. But wait, there’s more! Left fielder J.B. Shuck misplayed the bounce to allow two more runs to score and put the Pirates ahead by three in the 10th.
Snider entered Sunday as 2013’s most clutch hitter, and only figures to go higher after Sunday’s big hit. Past clutch performing is not predictive of future clutch performing, but there are players out there that hit a little better in high-pressure situations. Maybe Snider just has ice water in his veins. He should really see a doctor.
5. Even Jason Grilli tosses a dud.
When the Pirates’ closer exited the bullpen to finish off the four-run lead the Pirates created in the 10th inning, my issue was with manager Clint Hurdle using him in such a low-leverage situation. After Grilli struck out Mark Trumbo with a Grilli-esque fastball-slider combination, the Angels decided to make it high-leverage.
Snider misplayed a flyball Howie Kendrick hit in front of him, transforming a single into a triple. Then four singles sliced their way onto the grass and Grilli was faced with having to retire Mike Trout with the tying run on third base and the winning run at second. No problem. The future MVP whiffed on a slider to end the worst outing in Grilli’s tenure as Pirates closer. His ERA is still under 2.00, his strikeout rate is still sparkling, but Grilli is not immune to allowing a series of hard-hit balls to put Pittsburgh fans in a state of near-cardiac arrest.
Any road series sweep is a terrific accomplishment, especially since the Pirates have struggled so mightily on the West Coast over the years. Being able to out-hit and out-slug an offense as prolific as the Angels becomes yet another achievement on which the Bucs can hang their caps. The Pirates’ lineup was taking its lumps before they headed out Californi-way, but now they can hope the Alvarez-powered 21 runs in three games will be a bellwether for better hitting in the coming weeks.