Starling Marte's defense is a brilliant, beautiful thing. It's the type of special talent that would have helped maintain our interest in the Pirates deep into the summer even in the dark ages. In the middle of a pennant race Friday night, it proved crucial.
Marte made two excellent defensive plays in the ninth inning, helping the Pirates hold off the Reds, 5-4, in a back-and-forth game at Great American Ballpark.
Nursing the one-run lead, Mark Melancon got into trouble quickly in the ninth, giving up a leadoff single to Brandon Phillips. Instead of pinch-hitting Jay Bruce, Reds manager Bryan Price left Jason Bourgeois in to sacrifice bunt, which was nice of him. Joey Votto then worked a seven-pitch walk. Todd Frazier singled to left, past a diving Aramis Ramirez, and Phillips tried to score from second. Marte's throw was pretty much perfect, beating Phillips with time for Francisco Cervelli to get in his way -- the out call was upheld after a review involving the blocking-the-plate rule.
The Pirates weren't out of the woods yet, and Melancon fell into a 3-0 hole against Marlon Byrd. On a full count, Byrd pulled a sinking liner, which Marte stabbed with a headfirst, sliding catch for the final out. Marte hit his left wrist pretty hard, and he winced in pain, but got up and joined the high-five line with his teammates -- let's hope it's not a big deal.
I can't gush enough about Marte's defense, but this game was full of all kinds of action, as games in Cincinnati tend to be. Jung-Ho Kang hit three doubles, Andrew McCutchen hit an opposite-field home run, Jeff Locke was Jeff Locke and the Pirates limited the damage of two bases-loaded jams, including Joakim Soria narrowly avoiding disaster in his first outing as a Pirate.
With two on and two out in the first, Kang hit a drive to center field that unfortunately bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. Gregory Polanco scored from second, but Marte, running from first, had to stop at third, where he was stranded.
The Reds pulled ahead, 3-1, in the second. The mighty Ivan De Jesus hit a two-run homer. Locke gave up a single to pitcher Michael Lorenzen, then walked Billy Hamilton, which is actually a little more embarrassing. Phillips singled to load the bases, then Bourgeois scored a run on a force out -- Kang made a nice play to get the out at third. Votto walked to load the bases again, but Frazier, the Pirate killer, hit into a force out to end the threat.
The Bucs tied the game at 3 with single runs in the fourth and fifth. Kang doubled to start the fourth and scored when Pedro Alvarez singled through an unshifted infield. McCutchen hit a line drive that carried a few rows into the right-field seats in the next inning.
They took the lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Kang led off with a double, but Neil Walker flew out and Alvarez grounded out to follow. With the pitcher's spot up next, the Lorenzen intentionally walked Cervelli. Clint Hurdle pulled Locke (5 IP, 5 K, 3 BB, 5 H, 3 R) for pinch-hitter Travis Ishikawa, who worked a walk. Price lifted Lorenzen for Jumbo Diaz, who threw a wild pitch that scored Kang and walked Gregory Polanco. Marte hit a sharp single that scored Cervelli. For some reason, Ishikawa went home, too. He was out by a mile.
Byrd led off the bottom of the sixth with a solo homer off of Jared Hughes. Brayan Pena followed with a double, but Hughes settled down to retire the next three batters.
The seventh was more adventurous as Soria came on. He got the first two batters quickly, but walked Votto. Frazier singled and Soria lost an eight-pitch battle with Byrd, walking him to load the bases. Pena hit a nasty comebacker, which Soria somehow caught, and his Pirates ERA is still 0.00.
Tony Watson needed all of nine pitches to retire the Reds in the eighth before Marte's heroics saved the Bucs in the ninth.
The Pirates improved to a whole 3-8 against the Reds, but I can't complain too much after this one. It could have gone bad at several turns, but didn't. As much as that's a credit to luck, it's also good to have a few crazy-talented ballplayers, too.