The Pirates' hitters wore out Astros starter Joe Musgrove with opposite-field hits, and by the time the bottom of the fifth rolled around Houston was into its bullpen. While the Bucs' offense struck early, Ivan Nova cruised undamaged through the first eight innings on his way to a complete game. With a much needed 7-1 win, the Pirates broke their four game losing streak and picked up a game on the Marlins and Cardinals.
Polanco's two-homer night
Entering Tuesday night's game, Gregory Polanco was batting .190/.217/.362 in August. After Monday's game, Clint Hurdle was asked if he thought his left fielder's struggles were connected to batting cleanup. The Pirates' manager was dismissive of the notion:
"I don't think it is because he can't hit in the fourth spot," Hurdle said. "I think there are cycles to the season. It depends on which day you want to have the conversation. ... I think over the volume of time you'll see the guy respond very well to that role."
Tonight, Polanco broke out of his slump and put on a power display. His night started with a first inning single, a RBI and a run scored. He followed with back-to-back solo home runs in the third and fifth.
"Every time I'm not pitching, I tell him to hit a homer," Nova joked afterwards. "Today he did it for me. It was nice."
Polanco's first homer traveled on a line over the left field wall and landed five rows deep and 15 feet from the foul poll.
In the fifth, the Astros radically shifted their outfield to left field, with their infielders bunched over on the right side. It was the first time the Pirates have seen that extreme of a shift this season.
"I never had that problem," Clint Hurdle quipped. "They used to bunch me around the mound. They have a very creative squad over there and very creative team. You saw a number times the ball ended up right in the shifts, outside the first inning."
With a 2-2 count and facing the odd defensive arrangement, Polanco fouled off three straight pitches and then ripped a slider into the right-center field seats.
"Every day, [Nova] asks me, ‘Hey, when are you going to hit a home run?" Polanco laughed. "In the dugout, right before the game. ‘One day, One day,' I tell him."
Complete offensive night
The Pirates broke out of their three-game mini-slump, collecting 11 hits and seven runs. The offense hit the ground running in the first, with the first six batters collecting hits. By the time Jordy Mercer grounded out to end the inning, the Pirates had four runs.
"I mentioned to the offensive coordinator, Jeff Branson, that I really like the way he scripted his first 20 [offensive] plays." Hurdle joked,"You might want to stick with that. We were able to take advantage of a sinkerballer not getting the ball down."
The first six batters went a collective 10-for-23, including Josh Bell adding two more hits and Matt Joyce going 2-for-4.
Nova goes all the way
Nova pitched an absolute gem. He was efficient and induced ground balls with his two-seamer all night long. Through eight innings, the right-hander had thrown only 84 pitches and, with the Pirates leading 7-0 in the bottom of the eighth, Hurdle decided to let him bat and go for the complete game shutout.
"He's done it before," Hurdle said. "He's grown and been around the block a few times. He put himself in the position give himself a shot [for the complete game]."
Back-to-back lead off doubles quickly snatched away the shutout, but Nova settled back in and ended the game without further incident.
"I'm not a kid, I really know what I have to do out there," Nova said. "It's just a matter of confidence. ... They scored one run but we got the win and the complete game."
For the night, Nova allowed six hits and one run. He struck out six and walked one on 98 pitches.
When Francisco Cervelli was asked the key to Nova's efficiency tonight, his answer was simple: "Because he is here with the Pirates."
Since joining the club, Nova is posting a 3.20 ERA and has only walked one batter over 26 1/3 innings.
Fun to be a Pirate
Nova is feeling a renewed sense of confidence since coming to Pittsburgh, and the reason why, he says, is the camaraderie, pranks and laughter he is sharing with his new teammates.
"They are joking with me all the time," Nova said. "Stuff like that. Simple things. If I am doing my bullpen and I see [Ray Searage] coming all you do is stop and laugh. That is something you usually don't do in New York. These guys here are really funny guys. I love it."
After 41 years, a first for Hurdle
Hurdle mentioned that in 41 years in the baseball he had never seen a pitcher throw a five-pitch inning and leave a runner stranded at third base. Nova accomplished the feat in the third, when he allowed a first pitch single to Jason Castro. Joe Musgrove sacrificed him to second on the next pitch. George Springer immediately grounded out to second, sending Castro to third. After a curveball in the dirt, Alex Bregman grounded out to third.