On Monday June 17, the Pittsburgh Pirates started a four-game series against their divisional foes, the Cincinnati Reds. The teams split the set at two games apiece, with the Pirates outscoring the Reds, 11-9, in a series that featured a lot of pitching and a lot of timely hitting by the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez and the Reds’ Jay Bruce.
The first game of the series pinned Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano against the flaming hot Mike Leake. Leake, who has won five of his last six decisions, stifled the Pirates for seven innings, with his lone blemish being an RBI double by Russell Martin in the sixth, which tied the game at one.
Going into the bottom half of the sixth, Liriano had given up only one run, a solo shot by Zack Cozart in the fourth. However, Liriano was taken deep for the second time in the sixth, this time by Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, to put the Reds ahead by the score of 2-1.
The score remained the same entering the eighth inning. Sam Lecure started the inning off by striking out Pirates outfielder Alex Presley, but Andrew McCutchen followed with a hard hit single to center. Reds manager Dusty Baker then elected to go to left-handed flamethrower Tony Cingrani, who promptly struck out pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez looking on a full count.
Russell Martin followed Sanchez with a walk, putting a runner in scoring position for Alvarez. In an anti-climactic scene (if you’re a Pirates fan), Cingrani struck out Alvarez swinging on three pitches.
The Reds went on to hit two more solo shots in the bottom of the eighth and Aroldis Chapman got his 18th save in the 4-1 victory for the Reds.
The second game of the series featured Pirates starter Charlie Morton, who was making his second start of the season, against previously undefeated righty Matt Latos.
The Bucs jumped on Latos in the top of the first, with Starling Marte leading the inning off with a shot into the right-center field gap. Marte stretched what should have been a double into a triple and scored soon after on an RBI infield single by Martin. McCutchen followed with a strikeout, leaving Martin on first with one out and Garrett Jones up at the plate.
Jones walked on a very long at-bat, fouling off several tough pitches to further irritate the easily aggravated Latos. Neil Walker followed with a walk, bringing Alvarez to the plate with the bases loaded. Alvarez shot an 0-2 pitch the opposite way, which plated two runs and put the Bucs ahead by three before the Reds even applied their pine tar.
The rest of the game was filled with little intrigue, as Morton pitched five and one-third innings of shutout ball, and Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli helped Morton out with three and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief.
Marte added an RBI single in the seventh, which deprived Grilli and Melancon of a save and a hold respectively, but that means absolute nothing to the players themselves, who headed into the third game of the series at one game apiece.
Game three saw Jeff Locke take the mound, looking to continue his recent success, against Reds soft-tosser Bronson Arroyo.
In the third inning, the Pirates scored on a fielding error (that should have been an infield hit) and the game remained 1-0 Bucs until the ninth inning. Locke pitched masterfully, moving his fastball inside and outside the zone and seemingly never throwing a pitch that was a full inch above the knee of anyone.
Locke left after the seventh inning and handed the game over to the best setup man and closer in baseball this season. Melancon pitched an easy eighth and Grilli pitched a perfect ninth...except for the home run that Bruce hit off him on a first-pitch fastball that knotted the game at one. The blown save was Grilli’s first in 26 chances and the game marched on into extras.
In the bottom of the 12th, the Reds won on a walk-off bouncer over the second-base bag by Brandon Phillips. For the game, the Pirates used five pitchers (Locke, Melancon, Grilli, Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro), making the extra-inning loss even harder to deal with.
In the final game of the set, which was played on Thursday afternoon, the Bucs threw rookie Brandon Cumpton out for his second career start against the Reds’ Homer Bailey.
Although Cumpton pitched well and might have bought himself a third start in the big leagues, the day belonged to one man and one man only: Pedro “Cerrano” Alvarez (it has been reported that the Cincinnati pitching staff was seen drinking Jobu’s rum before the game).
First, Alvarez drove in a run in the third inning on a two-out single, which was the third consecutive two-out single by the heart of the Pirates order and it knotted the game at one.
In the top of the sixth, with the Pirates losing 2-1, Alvarez went yard for the 16th time this season, which once again tied the game up—this time at two runs apiece.
In the top of the seventh, with the game still tied, Cerrano—I mean Alvarez—stepped to the plate with the bases chucked. Just like in Monday’s game, Alvarez faced the lefty Cingrani, but this time with much different results. Alvarez drove a Cingrani fastball into the right-field corner and plated three runs to make the score 5-2.
Watson pitched the last two frames for the Bucs for his second save of the season and the series ended the same way it began—with the Reds leading the Pirates by half a game in the standings.
Alvarez was the Pirates' only offensive spark-plug of the series, driving in seven of the team’s 11 runs. He has now brought his average to a slightly more respectable .223 and now stands tied for third in the National League in homers with 16.
The Bucs will meet the Reds in three more series this year, with two of them being in the final week and a half of the regular season.
Jordy Mercer started all four games of the series at shortstop, but went just 2-for-13 with a double and four walks. Although those numbers seem as bad as Clint Barmes’s, Mercer reached base one more time in the series than Barmes has in the month of June (5-for-29, zero walks).
Mercer’s younger than Barmes and he’s a far better hitter, which allows the team to use their new shortstop either in the No. 8 hole (as they used Barmes) or the No. 2 hole, which is one of their biggest holes as a lineup.
Expect to see Manager Clint Hurdle continue to use Mercer at short in the near future. Mercer’s defense looks pretty solid, but if he stumbles in the field, expect to see the sure-handed Barmes getting used as a late-inning defensive replacement for Mercer.
Presley was sent down to the minors once again on Thursday, as the team brought up righty Duke Welker to help out in the bullpen. Welker was a second-round pick by the Pirates in 2007, and he is yet another sign of the Pirates’ improved organizational depth.
On Friday night, the Pirates start a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels in Los Angeles. Rookie Gerrit Cole will make his third career start tonight opposite Jered Weaver.
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