PITTSBURGH -- When Clint Hurdle named Ivan Nova the Pirates' Opening Day starter this spring, he referred to the veteran right-hander as the "dean" of Pittsburgh's rotation. Nova was at his experienced, efficient best on Thursday afternoon, so Corey Dickerson knew what Nova needed from Pittsburgh's lineup.
"Score a run any way possible," Dickerson said.
Dickerson delivered the only run the Pirates needed, putting an end to a tense pitchers' duel at PNC Park by launching his first career walk-off home run to right field and giving the Bucs a 1-0 victory -- and a series win -- over the Tigers.
"It's a shot in the arm. We've been scuffling," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We win a series, and you get the dean on your staff to step up."
The Pirates entered Thursday having lost seven of their last nine games. They were physically worn out after splitting a doubleheader on Wednesday. But Nova took charge, firing eight scoreless innings and striking out five without a walk as he traded zeroes with Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer.
After a couple shaky starts to begin the season, Nova has rounded into form. He needed only 93 pitches to complete his best start of the season, and he has not issued a walk over his last four outings, all quality starts. During that stretch, he has lowered his ERA from 6.10 to 3.32.
"Nova was Nova today. When you see guys swinging and you see he's pitching in the eighth with 70-something pitches, that's Nova," catcher Francisco Cervelli said. "Make people swing. Keep the ball down. Be able to control corners and read hitters. That's him. He's getting better and better. He's back."
But Fulmer was just as stingy on the mound. After holding the Pirates to one run over eight innings on April 1, he struck out nine over six scoreless innings on Thursday. The Tigers had a golden opportunity to break the scoreless tie in the ninth, too, loading the bases with nobody out against Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez.
But Vazquez buckled down. He induced a grounder to third and an infield pop-up for the first two outs, and shortstop Sean Rodriguez made a sliding stop up the middle for the inning-ending forceout at second base. How did he manage to get out of it?
"I have no idea. I was just making pitches, like every one of us should do in that situation. Try to put the pitches in the right place," Vazquez said. "I don't even know how I got out. I was just trying to make the best pitches that I could and I got out of the inning, like probably magic or something."
That kept the game tied heading into the bottom of the ninth. Up came Dickerson with one out against reliever Alex Wilson. Dickerson blasted Wilson's second pitch into the right-field seats and, after a replay review determined there was no fan interference, went about celebrating the first walk-off homer of his Major League career.
"I'm glad it stood," Dickerson said. "It's a pretty cool experience."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Escape act: Nova defused one jam in the first inning, stranding Leonys Martin after a leadoff triple by inducing three consecutive groundouts. He walked out of another tight spot in the third, leaving Jose Iglesias on third base. But his most important escape act came in the sixth inning, when his fielding error and a Dixon Machado single put runners on the corners with one out and Jose Cabrera due up. Cabrera hit a fastball back up the middle at 98.7 mph, according to Statcast™. Nova appeared to deflect the ball toward second baseman Adam Frazier, who flipped the ball to Rodriguez to start an inning-ending double play.
"No panic. You have [to think in your] mind that that run's not going to score," Nova said. "Just make one pitch and get the ground ball. … I was lucky enough to get that out."
Called out, thrown out: With two outs in the eighth inning, Frazier doubled and the Tigers intentionally walked Gregory Polanco. Starling Marte hit a grounder to third baseman Niko Goodrum, who attempted to tag Frazier on his way to third. Frazier avoided the tag, and Cabrera couldn't wrangle Goodrum's throw to first, seemingly loading the bases. But second-base umpire Mike Winters, the crew chief, overruled third-base umpire Tim Timmons to say that Frazier ran out of the baseline and was therefore out. Hurdle argued the call with Winters and was ejected for the first time this season.
"I didn't like the call," Hurdle said. "What confuses me is maybe you've got to look to see if the guy's out or safe at first before you make the call at third, I don't know. But the angle -- he said he's all over it. I just don't think he's all over it. He's the ump. He made the call. The call stuck.
"The other hard part for us is we've seen Josh Harrison get out of some things. If you watch the replays of that and he's not out of the baseline, you watch the replay of this and he's out of the baseline, I think it goes back to interpretation. That's the hard part."
Since the start of the 2014 season, there have been seven games in which a team won, 1-0, on a walk-off home run. The Pirates now have three of those wins. Neil Walker walked off against the Cubs on March 31, 2014. Harrison did so on Aug. 23, 2017, ending Rich Hill's no-hit bid in the 10th inning. Dickerson rounded out the group on Thursday.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
On Wednesday night, Rodriguez robbed the Tigers of a run with a running grab at the warning track in left field. He was back at it on Thursday afternoon, this time from the shortstop position. With one out in the fifth inning, Rodriguez ranged back and over to the left-field line, diving to snag Victor Reyes' pop-up for the second out of the inning.
"I didn't think he was going to have it, to be honest," Nova said, "but the guy hustled and he got it."
According to Statcast™, Rodriguez ran 107 feet to make the play, his second-longest run for an out this season.
HE SAID IT
"Nova pitched unbelievable today. He got out of a lot of jams. He's a smart pitcher, calm pitcher. Great composure. We definitely wanted to feed off that. We needed to get a run over for him. He pitched a heck of a ballgame."-- Dickerson
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Dickerson's towering walk-off home run was almost for naught when the Tigers used a challenge to see if the fan who caught the ball committed interference by reaching over the right-field wall. However, after a quick review, the replay official could not definitively determine that the ball would have remained in play had no contact with the spectator occurred, so the call stood, and the Pirates' celebration continued.