It was a packed house at PNC Park tonight as the Pirates defeated the visiting Red Sox 6-4, clinching a victory in the series and setting the table for a possible sweep tomorrow. The pitching matchup for the evening was a tortoise race of sorts, as Jeff Karstens matched his upper-80s heat against Tim Wakefield's mid-60s knuckler, in Wakefield's first start in Pittsburgh since the days when he was still wearing black and gold.
As is often the case with Karstens starts, the game seemed to be on the edge of going out of control for most of the night, but never quite got there. Jeff allowed two runs to score in the first three innings, letting Boston stake an early lead. The blame for the first run rests mostly with Ronny Cedeno, whose poor positioning on an attempted steal by Pedroia allowed McKenry's accurate throw to hit Pedroia and carom into the outfield, with Pedroia advancing to third before the ball could be tracked down and then scoring on a groundout. The second run was an honest one, though, coming on a long home run by Adrian Gonzalez. There were two other warning track fly balls against Karstens in the early going as well, both by J.D. Drew. The one in the first inning would likely have been out had it been hit anywhere other than straightaway center by the bullpen, but fortunately for the Bucs the park had just enough room to hold it.
The Pirates were able to muster up little offense until the third inning, when Cedeno collected the team's first hit of the game on a weak little tailing flare to RF that dropped in the no-man's land between the infield and outfield, right by the line. After Cedeno's mistake in the first, he worked hard all night to try and redeem himself, ending up with a fairly productive game in spite of his early gaffe. Later in the third, for example, he delivered a hard takeout slide at second to break up a probable double play and allow Karstens to reach first safely. Karstens ended the inning stranded at third, advancing on a pair of wild pitches, but in spite of the zero on the scoreboard there was a definite feeling that the Bucs' fortunes might be taking a turn for the better.
The wheels came off for Wakefield in the fourth. His command had been iffy in the preceding inning, and he grooved several balls against the heart of the order. McCutchen beat out a single on a hard smash to third, Walker followed with a walk, and then Overbay deposited a ball in the top rows of the right field bleachers to give the Pirates a lead that they would never relinquish. There were a large number of Boston fans at the game, chanting and cheering and cracking jokes in the early innings, but Overbay's blast just sucked all the oxygen out of their lungs. Cedeno followed with a laser of a double down the left-field line, and then Karstens added an insurance run with a ground ball single up the middle, collecting his first ML RBI in the process. (Karstens actually got very good wood on the ball all game, in contrast to Wakefield, who in spite of his past as a first baseman could not have looked more disinterested at the plate.)
The top half of the fifth inning was distinguished only by a nice snag at second by Walker on a hard-hit ball, and then it was the Bucs' turn to try and do more damage. Chase D'Arnaud led off by beating out an infield single deep in the hole at short (Mark is right - Chase knows how to bust it down the line), and then Garrett Jones advanced him to second on a well-struck double in the right-center gap. Cutch followed with a slow roller to second that didn't look like much, but Pedroia let it scoot under his glove and through the wickets Buckner-style, and D'Arnaud scored the Pirates' fifth run of the game.
Karstens shook off yet another near home run with two outs in the sixth, this one on a big fly down the right field line that didn't miss the foul pole by more than six feet, retiring Saltalamacchia on a soft fly to center to wrap up a good day's work a hair over 90 pitches. Or so I thought, watching him run off the field. In reality, Hurdle had other plans. He let Karstens bat when the pitcher's spot came up in the bottom half of the inning, and then sent him out for one more go-round at the top of the seventh. Karstens promptly surrendered a pair of nigh-identical solo home runs to Reddick and Ellsbury, earning a better-late-than-never hook and a nice round of applause from the crowd.
Hurdle called for Dan McCutchen to face Pedroia, and Pedroia hit a double off the wall at the same part of right-center where the two prior home runs that inning had vanished from play. Off the bat and in the air, it looked just as good as its predecessors had. I sincerely thought that it was gone. That wasn't a good moment to be a Piates fan, and even when it stayed in the park reality didn't look much better, with the tying run on second and every Sox fan in the park screaming and Adrian Gonzalez coming to the plate with blood in the water. Miraculously, though, Danny Moskos induced a groundout to second, and we limped into the bottom half of the inning with a flimsy one-run lead.
Garrett Jones gave the Bucs a bit of breathing room with his own home run to right-center, and then with the lead back up to two it was time for Francona to make his own glaring error in the next half inning. An Overbay biff and a Reddick single gave Boston two men on base with two outs in the eighth and Marco Scutaro at the plate hitting from the eight-hole.
There had been some talk earlier in the week about using Gonzalez in an outfield corner to free up first base for Ortiz, but in Saturday's game, Papi's ample posterior started the day nailed to the bench. He sat in the clubhouse all game like an unfired gun. If there was ever a time for him to come striding out of the dugout with a bat on one of his broad shoulders, this was it. The winning run at the plate in the form of a power-hitting colossus? How much better do opportunities get? Francona, though, elected to stick with Scutaro, and Scooter dropped a fly ball into McCutchen's mitt, and the chance was lost. So much for the strategic complexity of AL baseball.
Ortiz did make an appearance in the top of the ninth, amid a blizzard of flashbulbs from Boston fans, but he was a spent force. Hanrahan threw a series of fastballs, Ortiz weakly grounded one to Overbay, and that was that. There was a bit of excitement at the end, as with two outs Pedroia took a ball to the right field wall that Xavier Paul initially gloved and then lost when he struck the barrier. It went for a double, plus a red face for the fireworks operator, who was fooled by the play and triggered the traditional game-ending display. He needn't have worried, though. Hanrahan punched out Gonzalez to end things, and that was that.
The Pirates should have a little strut in their steps on Sunday. They won a game tonight that Pirates clubs of the past few years would've found a way to lose, against a tough opponent. Can they make it three for three tomorrow? Be there or be square.