PITTSBURGH — Things didn’t look good early for the Pirates tonight. They don’t need much this weekend to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. Any combination of two Pirates wins or Cubs losses will do it. But with Jake Arrieta on the mound for Chicago against the Brewers, it seemed likely that the Cubs wouldn’t be losing their one game tonight. And the Pirates got off to a slow start against a team they have struggled against all year, despite being the much better team in each matchup.
Francisco Liriano didn’t have his best stuff tonight, giving up two runs in the second on a two run shot by Reds shortstop Eugenio Suarez. He gave up two more runs in the third, although those came after a questionable foul tip call on Jay Bruce, which would have been the third out, and which Bruce might not have actually made contact on. Liriano ran into more trouble in the fourth inning, and that was made worse by some poor defense behind him. However, this time around he escaped the jam without any runs. Still, that put the Pirates down 4-0 after three and a half innings.
“The ball was elevated,” Hurdle said of Liriano. “He was pitching up in the zone more than he normally does. The overall command was off tonight. He got sharper in the fourth and fifth. Some damage had been done by then. He still had to battle off some traffic…overall he wasn’t as crisp or efficient as we had seen him.”
Making matters worse, the Pirates were consistently hitting the ball hard off Reds starter Keyvius Sampson. Through the first four innings, they had six balls that were hit 98 MPH or harder, and only one of them went for a hit. That was a solo homer by Andrew McCutchen, which put the team on the board. Sampson gave up a few more hard hit balls in the fifth inning, but still limited the damage.
“We hit some balls hard, and Sampson has good stuff,” Hurdle said. “You can look at the ERA and beat that up all you want. And you can grab every one of his outings and look for sequences. But the kid can pitch. He’s got a good breaking ball, a live fastball. You normally just try to wait him out.”
The Pirates did just that. Starling Marte started the sixth inning with a bunt single. Andrew McCutchen followed that with a single of his own, and the bases were loaded with no outs when Aramis Ramirez drew a walk. That ended the night for Sampson after five-plus innings. Tony Cingrani came on and gave up a bases loaded walk to Michael Morse, which brought in the second Pirates’ run. The third run scored when Pedro Alvarez grounded out to short on a ball that had some difficult spin, making it impossible to get the double play at first. Then, with two outs and new reliever Jumbo Diaz on the mound, Jordy Mercer continued his recent hot streak by lining a single up the middle, bringing in the tying run from second.
From that point, the bullpen locked things down, picking up Liriano after the lefty exited the game with just five innings of work. Jared Hughes, Joakim Soria, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon all pitched scoreless innings to take the game to extra innings. Antonio Bastardo kept the Pirates alive with two shutout innings, and Arquimedes Caminero rounded out the solid group effort with a scoreless inning, giving the relievers seven shutout innings on the night.
“They’ve been doing it for us all year long,” Hurdle said of the bullpen keeping them in the game. “Another instance tonight.”
The bullpen held on until the Pirates could capitalize, and that happened in the 12th inning. Starling Marte came up with a runner on first base and former Pirates’ minor leaguer Collin Balester on the mound. Marte took the first pitch and put it in the right field bleachers, wrapping up the 6-4 win for the Pirates. After the game, Marte said that he was expecting the pitch to be away, since that was how they pitched him in his previous at-bats, including the deciding pitch in the seventh when he grounded out to shortstop.
“I was ready for the fastball away, because I know how they [pitched] in my last at-bat,” Marte said. “Same situation, it was the same thing. So I prepared myself to be ready for the pitch.”
The win for the Pirates, combined with that inevitable win for the Cubs and Arrieta, means their magic number to clinch home field in the Wild Card game is now at one. That means one more win by the Pirates this weekend, or one loss by the Cubs, will put the Wild Card game at PNC Park for the third year in a row.
A few key moments from tonight’s win, beyond just the bullpen holding things close:
**Gregory Polanco throwing out Sampson at first, turning a two-out RBI single by the pitcher into the third out of the inning.
**The ball hit by Alvarez was a nice hit that happened to go to a fielder, but it had enough on it that it prevented a double play.
**Aramis Ramirez had two tough breaks early, with hard fly balls to the deepest parts of the park, leading to two fly outs.