The inexplicable dominance of the San Diego Padres over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Pirates' home park ended in dramatic fashion tonight with a 3-2 Pirates win. By taking the first two games in this three-game series, the Pirates ensured their first-ever series win over the Padres at PNC Park. The hard-earned win on a stormy, muggy July evening moved the Pirates to within four and a half games of the suddenly mortal St. Louis Cardinals, who spent the day losing a day-night doubleheader to the Chicago Cubs.
Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano was sharp in the first two innings, giving up only one hit to Will Middlebrooks and ably supported by a couple of nice plays at third by Jung-Ho Kang. A modest two-out rally by the Pirates against Padres starter Tyson Ross in the bottom of the second, built on two-out hits by Pedro Alvarez and Sean Rodriguez, ended when Chris Stewart bounced out. Stewart was a late replacement for Francisco Cervelli; the reason given was something such as "manager prerogative," but in light of the recent spate of injuries that are suddenly dogging the Pirates, the late scratch of Cervelli and his absence in the dugout throughout the game is a cause for concern.
Ex-Pirate Clint Barmes came to the plate to lead off the top of the third. As he was announced, the crowd's ovation built steadily and was joined by Pirates' bench players as the PA system intoned "Don't Stop Believin'," the old Barmes walkup song. After Barmes struck out, Liriano gave up a hit to Ross followed by a one-out fielder's choice to leadoff hitter Derek Norris. With Norris at first and a 2-0 count on Yonder Alonso, a rain and wind event of biblical proportions arose from the firmament, and everyone in the stands and on the field scattered. The grounds crew struggled in the wind to get the tarp on the field, and eventually several Pirates players had to help the crew wrestle the unruly tarp into submission after it nearly ate a crew member, evoking memories of Vince Coleman. After a one-hour 32-minute rain delay, Liriano resumed the top of third by completing the walk to Alonso, then giving up a two-run double to Matt Kemp on an 0-2 pitch.
The Padres chose not to bring back their starter after the delay, opting instead for erratic lefty Frank Garces in the bottom of the third. After striking out Liriano, Garces walked Gregory Polanco. Neil Walker then hit an apparent single to left center so sharply that it enabled Justin Upton to force Polanco out at second, aided by the wet field conditions and an awkward slide. But Walker then moved to second on a wild pitch and scored the Pirates first run on an opposite-field double by Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen now has a 14-game hitting streak, the longest of his career, and a batting average above .300. The hand-wringing of April and May and fretful discussions about Cutch's "lower body discomfort" are now a fading memory.
Liriano settled down in the fourth and fifth innings and kept the Padres lead at 2-1. Marcos Mateo came in to pitch the bottom of the fifth for the Padres, his cap perched precipitously on the side of his head, and gave up a soft single to center by Walker. After taking a couple of inside pitches, Cutch drove a ball to deep left center that looked to everyone in the ballpark with the exception of Justin Upton like a sure two-run homer. Upton, however, leaped several feet in the air and executed an act of defensive alchemy that turned the homer into a long out. Somehow Walker found the wherewithal to tag at first and go to second on the play, and then Kang laced a liner to right that got past Kemp for a game-tying triple.
Liriano pitched an easy sixth inning and then reluctantly gave way to a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning, finishing with six strong rain-interrupted innings--two runs, four hits, one walk, and six strikeouts. Relievers on both sides held the game in check at 2-2, with Tony Watson surviving a couple of Padres hits in the top of the eighth.
Then in the bottom of the eighth, the Padres brought in Joaquin Benoit, who hit Sean Rodriguez in the knee after getting ahead of him 1-2. With Chris Stewart at the plate, the Pirates opted to sacrifice despite the availability of only two uninspiring pinch-hitting options, Steve Lombardozzi and Gorkys Hernandez, on the bench. Stewart executed a perfect sacrifice bunt on the first pitch he saw, and Lombardozzi promptly and predictably struck out on three pitches. But with the winning run still on second and two outs, Gregory Polanco laced a beautifully struck liner into left-center field, and the Pirates had a 3-2 lead. Melancon protected that lead in the ninth for the ballgame and the series win.
Charlie Morton will take the mound for one more with the Padres tomorrow. Then, the Showdown.