Just when it seemed like the Pirates' season was teetering at the edge of a cliff, they responded tonight with perhaps their best game of the season, a 9-0 rout led by a brilliant performance by Pedro Alvarez.
Jose Tabata led off the bottom of the first with a walk, then came home when Travis Snider singled and Garrett Jones hit a sacrifice fly. Alvarez then singled, but got stranded along with Snider when Michael McKenry grounded out.
That was just the beginning. Alvarez had a great game with the glove as well as with the stick -- Allen Craig led off the second with a hard grounder toward the gap between third and shortstop, but Alvarez made a terrific diving stop and gunned Craig down at first. It was a tremendous play. (Alvarez also turned a nice double play in the eighth.)
In the bottom of the second, Josh Harrison led off with a single, and tried to come home when Tabata singled later in the inning. Harrison, all 5-foot-8 of him, barreled hard into Yadier Molina, hitting him in the head with his shoulder. Molina held onto the ball and kept the score at 1-0, but looked dazed and left the game.
In the third, Andrew McCutchen (who had a strong game at the plate; it would be great if he and Alvarez could both get going) doubled with one out. With two outs, Alvarez reached down to get a Jake Westbrook sinker and lifted it 400-plus feet to center, and the Bucs took a 3-0 lead.
McCutchen and Garrett Jones led off the fifth with singles, and Alvarez hit a long line-drive double that smacked the Clemente Wall, plating McCutchen. Then McKenry singled in a run. Harrison was up after that, and Westbrook hit him, presumably in retaliation for the collision with Molina, which appeared to be a clean play. Umpire Adrian Johnson issued a warning, which Clint Hurdle was furious about -- the Pirates were never able to respond, just as they never were a few weeks ago against the Reds. Anyway, Clint Barmes brought in two more runs later that inning with a single, and the Pirates went up 7-0.
In the sixth, Alvarez came up with the bases empty and hit another ridiculous home run, this time a shot to center that left the stadium. It's very difficult to even hit the ball out of that part of the park, let alone to clear the bleachers, but that's what Alvarez did.
In the seventh, Jeff Clement reached on an error and Snider tripled him home, making it 9-0.
I haven't even mentioned James McDonald, who pitched seven shutout innings and struck out six. It was his best start since ... well, at least his last start against the Cardinals, which was 11 days ago. He pitched six shutout innings against them then. St. Louis has one of the game's better offenses, but that doesn't seem to bother McDonald.
Alvarez, though! This was probably an even better game for him than the one he had against the Indians back on June 17, when he doubled and hit two homers. Alvarez started that game with a .669 OPS on the season; by July 4, he was at .794. We've all seen how hot Alvarez gets when he gets going. If he can continue to hit for the next several weeks, the Pirates' once-bleak outlook suddenly looks a lot brighter. I don't mean to overreact in either direction, and I still don't love the Bucs' chances of making the playoffs, but this was maybe the best game the Pirates have played all season.