In an evening oddly conducive to well-struck baseballs, the Pirates took the series opener from the Arizona Diamondbacks, 8-7. Tonight's display of offensive prowess never produced a lead that felt comfortable, and the outcome remained decidedly in doubt until the final pitch by Mark Melancon in the ninth. The Pirates failed to defend and protect two separate four-run leads, one early and one late. But solace may be taken in the fact that, when it was over, they had scored one more point than the opposition.
A 458-foot two-run homer in the second by Sean Rodriguez off lefty Patrick Corbin, followed by a 461-foot blast to center by Gregory Polanco, gave the Pirates an early three-run lead. That lead was quickly reduced to two by a David Peralta homer off Pirates pitcher Jonathon Niese in the bottom of the inning. An inning later, Jordy Mercer--yes, Jordy Mercer--hit the longest Pirates home run of the night; it traveled 466 feet and was, in fact, the longest home run that anyone has hit so far this season. Andrew McCutchen just missed a homer on the next at-bat on a fly out to center, as did Starling Marte, by about a foot, on a double and a Yasmani Tomas adventure in deep left field. When Josh Harrison drove in Marte from third with the Pirates' fifth run, they led 5-1 and appeared to be on their way to a second straight drubbing of a National League West foe.
The Diamondbacks, though, aided by whatever atmospheric conditions were elevating baseballs into the air in Phoenix, had other ideas. They answered with one run in the third on three singles and two runs in the fourth off Niese, including a solo homer by Welington Castillo, the fifth homer of the game in four innings, cutting the Pirates lead to 5-4. Even the outs were loud, for both teams: every other out was either a scorching line drive directly at a fielder or a deep fly to the warning track.
Corbin settled down somewhat in the middle innings, at one point retiring nine straight Pirates, but Niese continued to wobble. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Jason Rogers, playing first base after today's call-up from Indianapolis, allowed a catchable foul ball to drop, giving Nick Ahmed some on-the-house swings that produced a single, the 10th hit off Niese. When Niese walked Chris Owings, Clint Hurdle lifted him for Neftali Feliz, who was able to close out the inning. It was not a great night for Niese, and now the Pirates had three bullpen innings to consume among only two reliable relievers.
Fortunately, the Pirates do not hold a monopoly on marginally effective middle relievers and were able to tag recent call-up Silvino Bracho for two runs in the top of the seventh. McCutchen, ending an 0-11 streak, ripped a first-pitch hanging curve to left and drove in David Freese from second, and Francisco Cervelli singled in Mercer with the Pirates' seventh run. They added an eighth run in the top of the eighth on a double by Josh Harrison and a single by Rodriguez.
Meanwhile, Hurdle's run-containment strategy was to coax a two-inning outing from a well-rested Tony Watson and bring in Melancon for the ninth. The strategy seemed to be working after a crisp 10-pitch bottom of the seventh. But in the eighth, Castillo led off with his second homer of the night off the left-field foul poll, and David Peralta followed with a double. Watson retired Ahmed and Owings, but ex-Brewer and Pirate killer Rickie Weeks came in to pinch hit and knocked a sharp grounder off Jordy Mercer's glove for an error that scored Peralta.
With the score now 8-6, Hurdle played the only card left in the deck, removed Watson, and opted for the four-out save from Melancon. Jean Segura greeted Melancon with a hard grounder between first and second and Rodriguez, now playing first, made a terrific play to keep the ball in the infield. He was unable to get the out at first, though, and when Melancon couldn't hold the ball and make a throw home, Weeks scored the Diamondbacks' seventh run. It was now 8-7 and Melancon still needed four outs. He gave up a single to Brandon Drury and a base-loading infield single to Paul Goldschmidt, but was finally able to end the inning by retiring Tomas on a grounder to Freese at third.
After the drama of the first eight innings, the ninth was anti-climactic. Evan Marshall worked around a leadoff single by Mercer, his third of the game, and retired the Pirates on a double play by Cervelli. And Melancon survived another deep fly by Castillo that was not quite deep enough, a benevolently directed line drive by Peralta, and a game-ending bounce out by pinch-hitter Jake Lamb.
The Pirates offense is fun to behold, and if what we have seen the past couple of nights is the emergence of some facsimile of the 2014 version of Josh Harrison...well, look out. But man, this pitching.