CINCINNATI -- As the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches and decisions loom for the Pirates whether to add pieces for a playoff run or unload and focus on 2019 and beyond, the team is currently making its case for the former rather than the latter. Pittsburgh homered four times in the first four innings to blitz Reds starter Matt Harvey and complete a three-game sweep of Cincinnati with a 9-2 win at Great American Ball Park on Sunday afternoon for the team's ninth consecutive victory.
"The bats showed up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Everything showed up. Good defense for 27 outs. Our starting pitching got us to a good place in the game, but the offense got out in front of things and really did some damage."
The offensive pop has come from top to bottom during this recent tear that's bridged from the first half of the season to the second. Leadoff hitter Corey Dickerson slapped an elevated 0-2 fastball down the left-field line off Harvey in the first inning and later scored on a Gregory Polanco two-run homer. Dickerson demolished a 2-0 changeup from Harvey into the right-field seats for a two-run home run of his own in the second inning. Dickerson has now homered in four straight games and has a total of five home runs in that stretch with eight hits and seven RBIs. He went 4-for-5 on the day.
"I think we put together a pretty good plan and laid off pitches we didn't want to swing at," Dickerson said. "You have to get a pitch to hit because he is pretty good. He has been around a while."
Starling Marte's solo shot two pitches later extended his hitting streak to 15 games and gave the Pirates a 6-0 lead.
Things seemingly went right for everyone this weekend, including veteran utility man Sean Rodriguez, who hit a solo shot in the fourth inning for his second home run of the weekend. Rodriguez had six hits in his first series back from a lengthy rehab stint to combat some of the offensive struggles that have plagued him in 2018. His performance made him a handy replacement of an injured Josh Harrison at second base.
Even Pittsburgh starter Ivan Nova got in on the fun at the plate by ripping a long base hit to the wall in right-center to snap an 0-for-63 hitless streak.
"He takes it seriously," Hurdle said. "He doesn't want to go up there and be an out. He takes it personally. He never got to hit in the American League and is now asked to do a lot of things. He was happy, and we were happy for him."
Nova backed that up with 6 2/3 strong innings in which he gave up two earned runs on five hits with a pair of strikeouts and walks. Cincinnati didn't record an extra-base hit off Nova through the first six innings, connecting on three harmless singles until breaking through with a pair of runs in the seventh.
"I was making sure to attack the strike zone," Nova said. "I made pitches when I needed to and got a huge double play. The guys played good defense behind me."
The Pirates are playing their best baseball of the season at a time when their options at the Deadline seem to be growing. Pittsburgh has won 11 of 12 and is currently eight games back of the Cubs in the National League Central and in the hunt for the second Wild Card spot. The recent surge has helped compensate for a dreadful 14-31 stretch that saw the Bucs dip as low as eight games below .500.
Earlier this month, as the Pirates continued to fall further south of .500, it appeared as if they'd lean toward shopping some of their veteran pieces like Dickerson, Jordy Mercer, David Freese, Nova, Harrison and Francisco Cervelli, if healthy. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington spoke candidly on his weekly radio show on July 8 about the reality of the team's struggles making it more likely they would build for the future at the Deadline. Earlier Sunday on that same show, Huntington had a different message.
"We are always looking to do what is right for this organization and we would love to add," Huntington said. "If there is something out there that makes sense and makes us better, we are absolutely open to that."
Huntington acknowledged his talk of selling earlier in the month came at the low point of the season as optimism began to turn into realism, but this recent stretch has of good play has shifted the team's mindset to a degree.
"Here we are two weeks later going 10-1, and we have closed the gap in the division by four games," Huntington said. "We are still eight games out of the division and still in fourth place but we have closed the gap. The Wild Card we have climbed one spot. ... The reality is that we need to continue to play really good baseball."
The offense compiled 43 hits in the three games of this series, and all three starters pitched into the sixth inning and earned a win. The rotation has compiled a 2.80 ERA in the last 11 games with 72 strikeouts and 17 walks.
"I have appreciated their effort and focus," Hurdle said. "They know what is at stake, though. More often than not, we need to first be believers. We need to be out and in front of things."
Marte is 24-for-63 with six home runs and 15 RBIs during his 15-game hitting streak.
HE SAID IT
"We are hungry. These guys want to win. They want the ball and for us to keep rolling." -- Nova, on the starting rotation's recent success
The Pirates continue this six-game road trip with a three-game series against the Indians on Monday. Trevor Williams gets the nod for Pittsburgh beginning at 7:10 p.m. ET. He threw five innings of shutout ball last time vs. the Nationals, earned a win and snapped a string of three straight outings with a loss. The right-hander scattered four hits with three walks and three strikeouts. Williams has not seen the sixth inning in his last three starts. He is 7-7 with a 4.36 ERA on the year. Corey Kluber (12-5, 2.76 ERA) will be on the mound for the Indians.