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Pair of struggling Pirates redeem themselves on Marte's day

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates
Josh Harrison celebrates two-run homer with teammates.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates came from behind for the fourth time in five games and defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3 on Tuesday night at PNC Park, but their comeback win was icing on the cake for a day full of notable comebacks.

Starling Marte’s return to the lineup on after serving an 80-game suspension for PED use, there was a built-in redemption story for Tuesday night’s game.

The game mostly went fine for the returning left fielder. Marte received a smattering of boos when he first came to the plate, but most of the 20,462 fans in PNC Park seemed to welcome the Pirates’ besmirched star player back with open arms.

“I’m not going to lie,” Marte said through translator Mike Gonzales. “When I went out there to the field, I had different thoughts about how they were going to receive me. However, once I saw how they received me it made me more focused. It made me feel loved. I really appreciate that.”

Marte went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored. He made a nice sliding catch in left field. He made a boneheaded out on the basepaths when he was picked off at second base while chitchatting with Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia.

Basically, it was a pretty standard night for Starling.

But the Pirates left fielder was not the only player on the team who bounced back from some tough times to produce in the clutch against the Brewers.

Josh Harrison and David Freese, who were a combined 12-for-77 in July coming into Tuesday’s tilt, provided the game-tying and go-ahead RBIs as the Pirates battled back from a three-run deficit by scoring four runs in the sixth.

Harrison, up with one on and two out, stayed back on a fastball on the outside corner and launched it over the Clemente Wall in right field, driving in Marte and tying the game. One look at the dramatic third-base shift Milwaukee’s defense had on during Harrison’s at-bat is enough to show that the Pirates second baseman usually doesn’t drive the ball to that portion of the field.

“It had been a while since I hit [a pitch] like that,” Harrison said. “I had been fouling those off. When I hit it, I knew it wasn’t going to get caught.”

Harrison’s blast, which followed Francisco Cervelli’s homer to left that started the inning, rocked Brewers starter Junior Guerra, who had cruised through the first five innings.

Guerra, who made his first start since heading to the disabled list before the All-Star Break with a shin contusion, faced the minimum amount of Pirates until Cervelli put the Pirates onto the board. And Guerra nearly escaped the sixth with the lead, retiring both Jordy Mercer and pinch hitter Adam Frazier, before he walked Marte and surrendered the dinger to Harrison.

“The first two times through, he made some pitches,” Harrison said. “The third time, we were able to work him.”

Following Harrison’s shot, Brewers manager Craig Counsell yanked Guerra and brought in righty Oliver Drake who proceeded to walk Andrew McCutchen and allow a single to Josh Bell before David Freese came up to the plate.

Freese quickly fell behind 0-2, but battled back to a 3-2 count. Then, with the runners moving, the 34-year old third baseman poked a single into right field to give the Pirates a 4-3 lead that they would not relinquish.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle applauded Freese’s patience and was glad to see something work in his favor during the third baseman’s prolonged cold streak.

“[Freese] just planted an anchor and grinded it out,” Hurdle said. “He got inside of the ball and hit it hard somewhere.”

The win gives the Pirates six wins in their last seven games and brings their record to 46-48, just five games back of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central.

Putting the “bull” back in bullpen

Speaking of redemption stories, how about the Pirates bullpen this month?

In its 48.1 IP since the calendar turned from June to July, the Buccos bullpen has accrued a Major League-best 1.68 ERA. In the five games since the All-Star Break, the Pirates bullpen ERA is a minuscule 0.54.

The positive momentum of Pittsburgh’s relievers may have prompted closer Felipe Rivero to go to some drastic levels to establish a group identity in the post-Shark Tank era.

Rivero picked up the save on Tuesday, working his way around two one-out singles with a three-strikeout inning. He was preceded by quality innings from previously-beleaguered relievers AJ Schugel and Daniel Hudson.

Hurdle has been steadfast in his public support of his bullpen, saying that they were good pitchers who just had to figure some things out and get into their own respective grooves.

“They went through a hard time where every mistake was getting hit hard,” Hurdle said. “We’re not making those mistakes as much […] We’re being more aggressive and the execution has been very clean.”

Though the team’s July FIP, which was 3.67 heading into Tuesday’s game, indicates that this bullpen is benefitting from some small-sample-size number fudging, things might just finally be clicking for the Pirates bullpen.

Schugel brought up last June, when the bullpen showed its unity with new haircuts, as an example of how it’s important for a relief corps to develop momentum heading into the later months of the season.

“We had that run last year in June when we all shaved our heads,” Schugel said. “I don’t know if it’s quite comparable this year, but [momentum] is kind of contagious and it’s started going the right way.”