Notes and quotes from today's postgame:
A trio of homers
Entering this afternoon's game, Anibal Sanchez had allowed only 21 home runs in 389 innings pitched since being acquired the Tigers. By the time he was removed after 6.1 innings work today, he had given three home runs to the Pirates.
Josh Harrison led things off by doing the most Josh Harrison thing imaginable: hitting Sanchez's first pitch of the game into the right-center field seats.
"Josh has been up there battling and trying to work some things out, and for him to go ahead and set the tone made him feel better and it gives a boast of confidence to the dugout," Clint Hurdle said afterwards.
"Anytime you can get a pitch in the first inning and put a good swing on it to get on the board early (it's important) because it helps the starter," Harrison said. "That's what we want to do, put the pressure on them and set the tone early."
The second home run was equally well-timed and dramatic in its own way. After the Tigers had cut the Pirates lead to 2-1 in top half of the seventh, Pedro Alvarez deposited the first pitch of the inning into almost the same spot as Harrison's homer.
It was Alvarez's third home run of the season, with all three coming on the first pitch of an at bat. Indeed, six of the nine Pirates' homers this season have been on first pitches.
Finally, two batters after Alvarez, and with Francisco Cervelli on second, Corey Hart drove the second pitch of his at bat out to the deepest part of the ballpark for a two-run home run, putting the Pirates (seemingly) comfortably in front 5-1.
Hart, who is now 3-3 with four RBI pinch hitting this season, credited his early success to the kinds of scouting information is receiving about opposition pitchers. Specifically, he mentioned that he's being told both how pitchers have attacked in similar situations and how they've pitched hitters with a comparable makeup to his.
More on first pitch hitting
Seven of the Pirates 31 plate appearances were resolved on the first pitch today. For the season, 16.5 percent of all their at bats have ended after one pitch. That is significantly higher than the 11.3 percent league average. Moreover, the Pirates have a OPS of .947 on first pitches, with the league average at .817 OPS.
Certainly, it is far too early to tell if these numbers reflect a deliberate change in approach, and following the game Hurdle and Pirates players all denied that is was, but it is an interesting early season development worth keeping an eye on.
Gerrit Cole notched the Pirates second gem of the season, posting a 68 game score. He was mostly great throughout the first six innings, powering up to 97-99 MPH with his fastball on numerous occasions.
He ran into some trouble in the seventh when the first three batters got on base after he had jumped ahead 0-2 in the count to each. A couple close calls that may have changed the complexion of the inning didn't go his way and he left the game with the bases loaded.
"There were a couple of calls that we felt we didn't get," Hurdle said. "There may have been some that they felt they didn't get as well. But you play the game. What transpired, transpired ...One of the things he wants to be is a master craftsman out on the mound and you saw that today."
For his part, Cole said that he had some "butterflies" before game but "luckily I was able to calm those down and navigate through." He side-stepped any suggestion that he might have got squeezed in the wobbly seventh inning. "Once the ball leaves your hand it's out of your control," he said.
Hughes extracts the Pirates from a jam
Jared Hughes threw perhaps the pitch of the game in the top of the seventh inning. With the bases loaded and no outs, the Pirates were clinging to a tenuous 2-0 lead when Nick Castellanos came to the plate. Hughes threw a first-pitch sinker that Castallanos hit sharply on the ground slightly to Jordy Mercer's right. Mercer fielded the ball cleanly and Neil Walker made a strong turn, as the Pirates completed an important double play.
Shaking off the suggestion that he is "Mr. Double Play," Hughes credited his defense for getting the team out of a jam.
"I think our defense is Mr. Double Play," Hughes said. "These guys are making great plays for us. That wasn't just a can of corn routine double play. That was a tough one and they got it done."
After the double play, Hughes got Alex Avila to pop out ending the threat.
A difficult ninth
With the score 5-1 headed into the top of the ninth, the Pirates appeared primed to cruise to a decisive home opening win. However, Mark Melancon opened the inning by allowing back-to-back doubles and a home run to J.D. Martinez. Yoenis Cespedes then followed with a single, and suddenly a celebratory PNC Park crowd grew restless to the point of booing. But Castellanos hit into another big double play and then Melancon struck out Avila to end the game.
The Pirates bullpen is rightly expected to be a strength of this years team, but in the early going it's been a bit shaky.
Asked about the early season hiccups, Hurdle was as animated as he was at any point today with the media.
"Our bullpen is much better than anybody's given it credit for, so far," Hurdle said. "When you don't have a safety net and don't add on on offense, if they blink then (the perception is) that you don't have a good bullpen. I really don't see it that way. Our bullpen has a chance to be very, very good."