For far too long, brilliant autumn days that turned into crisp autumn nights only meant one thing to Pittsburghers: the start of football season. But tonight, with just eight days left before summer gives way to fall, the Pittsburgh Pirates prepared the locals for a different type of seasonal association. Coming off of one of their toughest losses of the season, the Bucs captivated a crowd of 37,534 on their way to a much-needed 2-1 victory.
Gerrit Cole was the story tonight. After a wobbly first inning, he settled down and pitched a gem. Cole ended up going seven innings, allowing only one run and striking out seven. It was his 12th quality start in 17 appearances, and the 16th time he has given up less than four runs this season. With the Pirates in a thrilling down-to-the-wire race for the division title, Cole has allowed only three runs in 20 innings work (1.35 ERA) in September.
As has been the case most of the year for Pirates' pitchers, Cole was supported by some very fine team defense. In the top of the first, a perfectly executed relay play, Byrd-to-Walker-to-Martin, saved Cole a run by nailing Anthony Rizzo at the plate as he tried to score from first on a Nate Schierholtz double (link to replay). In the second inning, Pedro Alvarez leapt and swatted a line drive over his head to the ground, then quickly picked it up and let loose a cannon shot over to first that just beat Darwin Barney (link to replay). And then in the seventh, with Cole facing the highest-leverage situation of career (3.60 LI) - runners on second and third, one out and the score tied - Russell Martin dug four pitches out of the dirt, holding the runners in place and giving Cole the opportunity to extract himself from the inning without any damage.
The Pirates' offense was stymied most of the night by Cubs' starter Scott Baker, breaking through only twice in the form of two (rally killing!!) solo home runs. The first was hit by Jose Tabata in the sixth and the go-ahead home run by Marlon Byrd in the seventh.
When Cole left in the seventh, the Pirates newly-reliable eighth and ninth inning combo of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon closed things out, securing the Pirates their 86th victory of the season and pulling them back even with the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost to the Seattle Mariners tonight.
So, with 14 games left in the season the Pirates prepare for another very important ballgame Sunday afternoon. And, suddenly, nothing seems more natural for Pittsburgh sports fans than waking up on a Sunday in mid-September and counting down the minutes until the Pirates play.