Thanks to three-run homers by Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, a credible emergency start by AAA righty Casey Sadler, and strong relief pitching, the Pittsburgh Pirates return for their home opener carrying a respectable 2-4 record.
McCutchen, returning to the lineup after a day off to nurse an aching knee, hit an outside breaking ball from Brewers starter Kyle Lohse to the opposite field to put the Pirates ahead 4-2 in the sixth inning. McCutchen's homer scored Gregory Polanco and Jordy Mercer, whose opposite-field double and single had put runners on first and third. Lohse, the beneficiary in the early innings of the Pirates' overly aggressive swings at his outside off-speed pitches, was victimized by their change of approach in the sixth.
To that point, Casey Sadler, up from Indianapolis for his first major-league start in place of Francisco Liriano (away on paternity leave), had kept the Pirates in the game, trailing the Brewers 2-1 after five. With the exception of a double by Hector Gomez and a two-run homer by Carlos Gomez in the bottom of the third, Sadler mostly threw strikes and kept the ball down. After the two-run third, he recovered nicely in the fourth and fifth, getting five straight batters before Carlos Gomez struck again with a two-out double. Fortunately, Gomez was erased when he inexplicably strayed from second with thoughts of stealing third with two outs, promptly getting picked off with Jean Segura at the plate.
"That's a foolish, foolish play," said Bob Walk.
After Sadler completed the fifth inning, the bullpen took over and did what they are supposed to do in scoreless innings from Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Tony Watson, and Radhames Liz, who pitched the ninth instead of Mark Melancon after the Bucs had put the game away in the top of the inning.
The Pirates' first run in the third came on the first of three hits by Tony Sanchez on a high changeup, a perfect sacrifice bunt by Sadler, and an RBI single by Gregory Polanco. Polanco ended the day two for five, but struck out in his other three at-bats, including twice with runners on first and third and one out, in the seventh and ninth innings. In the seventh, Clint Hurdle again opted not to pinch hit for Polanco in a key lefty-lefty situation late in a game. The score was 4-2 Pirates, and the Brewers brought in lefty Will Smith to face Polanco, getting him to flail at a 2-2 pitch way outside the strike zone. An argument could be made, and probably will be by Clint, that the long-term value of providing Polanco with learning opportunities in situations like these exceeds the importance of getting the perfect matchup in one particular instance. May it be so.
After Aramis Ramirez of the Brewers made nice plays at third base to rob Jung-Ho Kang of hits in his first two at-bats, it was nice to see Kang get his first major-league hit leading off the seventh inning on a low, outside off-speed pitch by Lohse. Kang played third today in place of Josh Harrison, who has been suffering from a bout of strikeout-itis. The similarly afflicted Starling Marte, who took a Golden Sombrero today, may be another candidate for a day's rest.
Tony Sanchez also had a nice day at the plate spelling Francisco Cervelli, getting three hits and reaching on an error by Khris Davis in the ninth. Davis's error led to five unearned runs by the Pirates, their six runs in the inning, highlighted by Walker's homer, putting the game out of reach. Also of note was Pedro Alvarez's beautiful two-strike single that led off that inning, an easy grounder past the third-base region vacated by the Brewers' defensive shift. It has been great to see Alvarez's more deliberate, patient approach in his at-bats so far this season.
The awakening of the Pirates' bats today makes the specter of facing the mighty Detroit Tigers, now 6-0, slightly less terrifying tomorrow.