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Agrazal, clutch ninth power Pirates from slump

@adamdberry
July 17, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- There was no panic in the Pirates’ clubhouse, Starling Marte said Tuesday afternoon. Their “want-to” was never a problem, manager Clint Hurdle added, but their “how-to” had been an issue as they lost their first four games coming out of the All-Star break. It wasn’t always pretty,

ST. LOUIS -- There was no panic in the Pirates’ clubhouse, Starling Marte said Tuesday afternoon. Their “want-to” was never a problem, manager Clint Hurdle added, but their “how-to” had been an issue as they lost their first four games coming out of the All-Star break.

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Pirates figured out how to get it done on Tuesday night. Dario Agrazal worked six strong innings in his fourth Major League start, Richard Rodriguez wriggled out of a tight spot in the seventh and the Bucs rallied for two runs in the ninth to beat the Cardinals, 3-1, at Busch Stadium.

“It’s always good just to get the first one out of the break,” said third baseman Colin Moran, who drove in the go-ahead run off Cards closer Carlos Martinez. “We’ve shown that once we get rolling, we can run off some wins with the best of them.”

While their “want-to” never wavered, here’s a look at three of the key “how-to” performances that snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game losing streak.

How Agrazal kept his cool

Agrazal’s arsenal won’t blow anybody away. The rookie-right-hander, who was designated for assignment in January, offers a fastball that clocks in around 91 mph, a changeup that induced no swinging strikes on Tuesday and a slider that produced just one swinging strike in his six-plus innings.

Agrazal didn’t record a strikeout all night, and the Cardinals only swung and missed on three of his 87 pitches. But he pounded the strike zone and kept St. Louis’ lineup off-balance as he delivered the start Pittsburgh needed.

“My goal was to attack the zone,” Agrazal said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I recognize this is a strong team, one of our rivals, a very competitive team, and I just went out there with the same mentality. I’m going to come out here, compete, stick to my plan and just attack the zone.”

The Cardinals put just two hard-hit balls in play against Agrazal, according to Statcast, and their average exit velocity against him was just 78.7 mph. In fact, Agrazal himself recorded the hardest-hit ball of the game, a 100.9-mph groundout in the sixth.

“The sinker plays, and they don’t square him up a lot,” Hurdle said. “The rhythm and the tempo and the mound presence has been fun to watch.”

Agrazal’s poise stands out as much as anything else. With the bases loaded in the second inning, he remained calm and retired opposing starter Jack Flaherty. He bounced back with a seven-pitch third and an eight-pitch fourth. When the Cardinals tied the game in the fifth on a Flaherty double that most Pirates thought veered foul, Agrazal didn’t flinch.

As Hurdle said, Agrazal acts like he’s been here before. And after three consecutive quality starts, he looks like he belongs.

“I’ve always been confident. I’ve always believed in myself. And I’ve always trusted in the process all those years in the Minor Leagues,” Agrazal said. “But the moment I was able to come up to the big leagues, I was able to fully recognize that I belong here.”

How RichRod escaped

The Cardinals seemed poised to pull ahead in the seventh when Agrazal exited the game with runners on the corners and nobody out. Hurdle summoned Rodriguez, riding a six-week scoreless streak, to the mound.

It may seem like a long time ago that Rodriguez’s season was on the brink of collapse. The Pirates optioned him to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-May after he allowed eight homers in his first 22 appearances, but they called him up in late May and kept believing he would turn back into the sensational reliever he was a year ago.

Hurdle’s belief has meant a lot to Rodriguez.

“Honestly, I regained my confidence because of him,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that I am Richard Rodriguez again because of him.”

The right-hander who took the mound in the seventh looked a lot more like the guy from last season as he deftly defused the jam. His game plan with catcher Elias Diaz wasn’t anything complicated. Nine of his 11 pitches were fastballs.

Matt Wieters hit a grounder to first baseman Josh Bell, who made a one-hop throw to get the forceout at second base. Harrison Bader popped out to Bell in foul territory for the second out. Then pinch-hitter Jose Martinez swung at Rodriguez’s first pitch and grounded out to second.

“It’s not a prime time to bring in anybody. That’s hard work,” Hurdle said. “Basically, I love the fact that he attacked. He stayed on attack and made a lot of necessary pitches at that time to keep us in the game.”

Rodriguez marched off the mound with the game still tied and a 19-inning scoreless streak -- the current longest in the National League -- still intact.

“That’s the ballgame right there,” Moran said. “He’s been rolling.”

How they pulled ahead

The tie persisted into the ninth, and the Cardinals called on their closer. Marte was hit by a pitch then hustled to third as Bell beat the shift with a ground-ball single. Cards second baseman Kolten Wong made a diving stop on Moran’s hard-hit grounder, but he couldn’t record an out anywhere. Moran slid into first base and Marte dashed home on the RBI infield single.

“It wasn’t really my plan to hit a ground ball into a possible double play, but it worked out,” Moran said. “Just try to get contact there, try to get the runner in at all costs.”

After Corey Dickerson walked to load the bases, the Pirates plated another run when the Cardinals couldn’t turn a double play on Kevin Newman’s grounder to shortstop Paul DeJong. Closer Felipe Vazquez shut the door with a perfect ninth.

“We had lost four in a row, and we just stayed the course,” Hurdle said. “We played the game like we try to play every game. We just came out in a better way.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.