For the second consecutive night, the Pirates power-stroke carried them to victory against the Washington Nationals, pounding three home runs off of Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Scherzer had dominated the Pirates in his last two starts going back to last season, throwing a combined 17 innings, four hits, zero runs and 24 strikeouts, including the no-hitter he threw in June. He breezed through the first inning, striking out two batters along the way, and it looked like the Pirates were in for another long evening.
Leave it to Jung-Ho Kang to get the Pirates going in the second inning, though, when he lined a single into centerfield, and may have reminded everyone that Scherzer was in fact still human.
“We didn’t get a hit for eleven straight innings off of him. One hit, we were cheering in the dugout,” Neil Walker joked following tonight’s game.
Scherzer then made what seemed to be his first mistake in two years against the Pirates, when he grooved a 93-MPH fastball right into Pedro Alvarez’s wheel-house. Alvarez got all of Scherzer’s fastball and deposited a 453 foot home run into the Allegheny River on one hop.
Jeff Locke was unable to hold onto the lead for long, though, as the Nationals scored four runs in the fourth inning, taking back control of the game. Scherzer had settled down after the Alvarez home run and it looked like Scherzer was going to shut the game down.
But things changed quickly in the bottom of the fifth inning, when pinch-hitter Jaff Decker worked an eight-pitch walk, and it was remarkably only the second walk Scherzer has issued in his last seven starts. Enter Gregory Polanco, who provided the Key Moment of the Game.
Polanco had struck out his first two plate appearances against Scherzer and did not look good doing so. Polanco tends to become a little long with his swing path at times and Scherzer took advantage of it, blowing two fastballs by Polanco during his first two at bats.
In Polanco’s third plate appearance, Scherzer quickly got ahead in the count 0-2, forcing Polanco to enter protection mode. Scherzer began pouring in fastball after fastball, and Polanco continued to battle, working the count full and then fouling off five straight fastballs to stay alive. On the 12th pitch of the at bat, Scherzer finally gave into Polanco, throwing him a slider that stayed up in the middle of the plate, and Polanco hammered it into the right field stands. The homer tied the game at 4-4, and Scherzer’s pitch count became severely inflated.
Neil Walker reaped the benefits of Decker’s and Polanco’s work, and crushed a hanging changeup to give the Pirates a 5-4 lead.
“[Polanco] wore him down,” Walker explained. “That was probably the biggest thing. [Scherzer] is as good of a pitcher as they come so when that happened, he tries to lock it back in, and as a hitter, you assume that he’s going to really attack you. And that’s exactly what he did. He just left a pitch that was middle down for me, and I was able to hit it in the seats.”
Polanco credits his great at bat to his ability to shorten up his swing. His swing tends to get a little long and loopy when he doesn’t “hold his back side,” as Hurdle described it after the game.
“Not coming off of that back side – chasing down, chasing up, and putting your nose in the fight,” Hurdle said. “We’ve seen it before and we’re seeing it a lot more right now. He’s hitting some change-ups, he’s hitting some breaking balls, he’s moving the ball around the ballpark. He’s getting better looks. And actually tonight, I thought the swing was a little long the first times up and he made a nice adjustment. He’s getting better.”
After the fifth inning, both Jeff Locke and Scherzer exited the game and the Pirates won the battle of the bullpens. Vance Worley gave up a home run in the top of the sixth inning that allowed the Nationals tie the game at five, but the Pirates quickly answered with two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning courtesy of a Brent Morel pinch-hit RBI double and an RBI single by Polanco, giving the Pirates a 7-5 lead.
Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon combined to pitch three scoreless innings to secure the victory and give the Pirates their second win of the series.