Behind six homers, Bucs to host NL Wild Card Game
Walker leads barrage with two blasts as playoffs return to his hometown
CINCINNATI -- Sixty years after Rosey Rowswell would tell KDKA radio listeners "Open the window, Aunt Minnie, here it comes" when a Pirates player hit a home run, Pittsburgh can open its hearts because the Pirates are running home.
Well, not running, which would take too long and not get them back to PNC Park in time to host Tuesday night's National League Wild Card Game against Cincinnati.
The Pirates arranged for their city's first postseason affair since Game 5 of the 1992 NL Championship Series with Saturday's 8-3 win over the Reds.
"The important part for me is getting these guys home and playing in a park where they won 50 games -- and giving our fans a taste of postseason baseball," manager Clint Hurdle said after win No. 93 clinched the No. 1 NL Wild Card. "That's significant."
"It's going to be a really exciting time. I imagine it will be Steelers-esque," said Neil Walker who, like other kids in Pittsburgh, grew up fantasizing about playoff baseball and on Saturday took two swings at making it happen.
Aunt Minnie would've had to just keep her window open for this one, as the Pirates clocked six homers -- the first five off Cincinnati starter Bronson Arroyo -- to tie the Great American Ball Park visitors' house record.
Included was the first two-homer game of Walker's career. Walker sounded liftoff with a solo homer in the third and snapped a 3-3 tie in the fifth with his 16th of the season.
"But absolutely not did I think we were on our way. Not in this ballpark," Walker said. "You're not safe until the last out in places like this. It was nice to be ahead."
Also going long were Andrew McCutchen -- following Walker's third-inning blast for the Pirates' fifth case of back-to-back homers -- Pedro Alvarez, Marlon Byrd and Andrew Lambo.
For Alvarez, it was No. 36 of the season, tying Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona for the NL lead while pushing his RBI total into triple digits. For Lambo, it was No. 1 of his career.
All but Lambo's -- off right-handed reliever Logan Ondrusek in the sixth -- were off Arroyo, the first time he had surrendered five home runs in his 392-game career.
"He was missing over the heart of the plate," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "His balls were a little bit up and a little bit in the middle. The one that really hurt was the one that Byrd hit. He had him one ball, two strikes. There were two outs in the inning. Byrd has been a thorn in our side. That's a key late season acquisition by them. He's been a big acquisition late in the year."
Byrd's two-run blow closely followed Walker's second home run and opened up a 6-3 lead.
"That was huge, giving us some breathing room," Walker said.
Complying with his streak-hitter reputation, Walker has hit six of his 16 homers in the last nine games and is batting .324 overall across that stretch.
"We've known all along he's capable of doing that, when he gets rolling," Hurdle said. "It adds depth to our offense. He's continued to fight through a lot of challenges."
The six home runs tied a record for visitors set on Sept. 9, 2007, by the Brewers and first equaled earlier this season on June 5 by the Rockies. Even with the firepower, there was room for pitching heroics. Little of it came from starter Charlie Morton, who was not at his sharpest -- obviously, since he couldn't even last long enough to qualify for the victory, falling two outs short of the five innings.
"Yeah, just wasn't sharp," said Morton, who nonetheless can put into his memory book having started both the game that clinched the Pirates' postseason berth (Monday, in Chicago) and the one that got that first playoff game back home -- although he did not get the decision in either. "Great defense ... great offense. The guys around me did great."
Considering seven three-ball counts to his total of 24 batters, Morton in effect minimized the potential damage against him by limiting Cincinnati to three runs.
It didn't happen without help. The mound main man was Vin Mazzaro, called on to rescue Morton with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth. Entering a game the Bucs led 6-3, that meant each man he faced represented the go-ahead run.
Mazzaro fanned Zack Cozart and then watched McCutchen run down Ryan Hanigan's liner to right-center. The bases were left loaded. Seeing Mazzaro walk off the mound amid stranded baserunners is a familiar sight: He has inherited 32 of them; four have scored.
"You don't get the start you want [from Morton], the bullpen shows up," said Hurdle, once again sounding what has been a common theme this year. "Mazzaro ... just a big, big push from him, the way he held that situation with the bases loaded. He's been as good as anybody we have leaving inherited runners out there. Put three more on the board today."