Mark Melancon entered tonight's game against the 11-21 Philadelphia Phillies in the bottom of the ninth, pitching for the third consecutive day. The Pirates were holding on to a 4-2 lead that seemed, at that moment, tenuous. A few hours earlier, I had been nodding my head in grave acknowledgment as I read Charlie's irrefutable argument that a forthcoming disaster involving Melancon was inevitable; that, in light of the Pirates' stubbornly irrational faith in the efficacy of the proven closer, such a disaster wasn't a matter of if, but of when.
Well sorry, baseball gods, not tonight. Melancon did surrender a leadoff homer to Odubel Herrera, the first of his career, on a decent 0-2 knuckle curve that Herrera went down and golfed out of the park. After retiring Cody Asche on a fly out to McCutchen in center, where Cutch had already had a busy night, Melancon surrendered a single to Carlos Ruiz on a weak 89 mph four-seam fastball down the heart of the plate. Disaster loomed; but Melancon retired pinch hitter Darin Ruf and Ben Revere on flies to Polanco and McCutchen, and the Pirates won their third straight. Melancon did hit 91 on the radar gun with cutters to Ruf and 90 with a four-seamer to Revere; but tonight's results, like those in the last two Cardinals games, don't dispel a sense that a reckoning is coming.
If the Pirates had scored more runs off journeyman starter Jerome Williams, the drama in the ninth might have been avoided. But in the end, the runs they did score were sufficient thanks to another fine outing by Gerrit Cole, who pitched seven innings and gave up two runs on six hits, striking out six and walking two. After two quick outs in the first, Cole gave up a run on a four-pitch walk to Chase Utley, whose batting average was .116 at the time, and singles by Ryan Howard and Grady Sizemore. After that, though, Cole pitched methodically and efficiently before running into trouble in the sixth.
Starling Marte had put the Bucs ahead to stay in the top of the third. Gregory Polanco worked a lead-off walk. After retiring Walker and allowing Polanco to steal his 11th base, Williams, wanting nothing to do with the post-exorcism Andrew McCutchen, chose instead to face Starling Marte with two on and one out. After getting ahead of Marte 0-2, Williams hung an off-speed pitch to Marte on the seventh pitch of the at-bat; he held back admirably and deposited it into the seats for his eighth homer of the year, putting the Bucs ahead 3-1.
Cole walked Freddie Galvis to lead off the sixth after umpire C.B. Bucknor chose not to ring Galvis up on a borderline pitch that might have been strike three. After retiring Chase Utley on a pop-up, Cole hit Ryan Howard on the foot, and then Grady Sizemore perfectly placed a popup between Marte, McCutchen, and Jordy Mercer. Galvis scored the Phils' second run when the ball kicked off Marte's shin. With the tying run on second, the go-ahead run on first, and one out, we saw the Gerrit Cole who evokes comparisons with Justin Verlander in his prime. Reaching back for extra velocity, Cole struck out Herrera on identical 97-mph fastballs, one for a swinging strike and the other for a called strike three, and then retired Asche to end the threat and preserve the 3-2 lead.
The Bucs got what turned out to be a key insurance run in the top of the seventh thanks to an opposite-field single by Polanco, a hard-earned walk by Walker, batting right-handed against lefty Jake Diekman, a wild throw by Phillies catcher Ruiz moving Polanco to third, and a line-drive sacrifice fly to short left field by McCutchen off righthander Luis Garcia.
Gregory Polanco: fast.