Early lead spurs Bucs to series win in Milwaukee
Combined effort helps Pittsburgh take fifth set at Miller Park in 27 tries
MILWAUKEE -- They're on a roll, no matter how you measure it. By certain measures, however, the Pirates have never been on such an early-season roll.
Sunday's 5-4 survival over the Brewers at Miller Park ran the Pirates' record in May to 16-7, following a 15-12 April. The 123-year-old franchise had never before won 15-plus games in each of the first two months of a season.
Two qualifiers here. One, this season began on April 1, earlier than most.
Two, these Pirates don't want to hear about it, nor address it. Not even the one who can relate to club history from a former fan's perspective.
"It's early. You're not going to get anything different on that front out of anybody in here," said Neil Walker, the Pittsburgh Kid. "Now, if we throw five months of 15-win baseball in there, I think we're talking September fun."
Since April 8, the Pirates are first in all of the Majors with a record of 30-14, and it began with the last letter of the alphabet.
It began as a sign of team solidarity, so we already recognized that the "Z" flashed by the Pirates was a unifying force. But who knew the "Z" also held super powers?
It's true. In a team meeting soon after the Bucs checked into Chase Field's visiting clubhouse on April 8, it was decided to revive the "Z," which for some reason had become a forgotten relic in the rubble of the 2012 collapse.
The Bucs had arrived in Phoenix dragging a 1-5 record. That night, they beat the D-backs, scoring a season-high, if very modest, five runs, and haven't looked back since.
In the latest leg, Pittsburgh wrapped up only its fifth win in 27 Miller Park series since 2004 on Jason Grilli's 20th save. Seven of the Pirates' last 10 wins have been by one run.
"We're all handling our business pretty calmly," said Grilli, who remained perfect in his 20 save opportunities. "Tight ballgame ... we keep practicing it, and doing a good job going through it time and time again. You get in a routine. You crave it."
Without the benefit of the long ball, four of which had accounted for all their scoring in Saturday's 5-2 win, the Bucs had to scavenge for Sunday's scoring against Yovani Gallardo and his relief.
To successfully do so, the Pirates reached double figures in hits for the first time in eight games. Jordy Mercer had three of the 10, and Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Michael McKenry had two each.
The best thing the Bucs did was make Gallardo labor through 94 pitches in four innings, shortening the day of a pitcher who had come in with a career 10-3 record and 2.52 ERA against them.
"Yeah ... they make you work," Gallardo said. "They foul off some pretty good pitches. They make you battle and fight. You leave a mistake up in the zone, and they've got the kind of guys who can take advantage of it."
Protecting a 4-0 lead he was given in the third inning, Wandy Rodriguez's spell was abruptly broken by Ryan Braun's three-run double in the fifth, but the Pirates regained the momentum by immediately answering with a run in the sixth.
McKenry ripped a double into the left-field corner against reliever Donovan Hand to lead off and was ushered home by Jordy Mercer's single to third. Mercer scored on Marte's sacrifice fly to medium-depth right-center to give the Pirates a 5-3 lead.
The Pirates profited from Milwaukee center fielder Carlos Gomez's indecision in the second. McKenry, aboard with a two-out walk, scored when Mercer's liner into left-center reached the wall as Gomez hesitated trying to cut it off, resulting in Mercer's second career triple and the game's first run.
Garrett Jones' sacrifice fly and Pedro Alvarez's two-run double upped the lead to 4-0 in the third.
Those run-producing swings made the Pirates' RBI race simulate the race in the National League Central, jammed at the top with the Cardinals, Reds and Bucs all with 31 or 32 wins. The two ribbies put Alvarez in the team lead with 27, and McCutchen and Jones are both on his heels with 26.
Baseball is a game of inches, and also of instincts. Walker's let him down slightly, and the Brewers turned that lapse into three runs in the fifth.
With two on, two outs and Jean Segura facing a 3-2 count -- meaning the runners were off on the pitch -- the second baseman broke to his right as Rodriguez delivered. Segura hit a grounder to the exact spot vacated by Walker, who did reverse his field to glove the ball with a dive and jump to his feet for a throw to first, but Segura beat it for a bases-loading infield single.
"That was on me. My fault. I did not see the ball off the bat," Walker said. "It was a breaking ball, so my first reaction was up the middle. By the time I saw the ball, it was too late. I felt terrible for Wandy in that situation -- now he's got to face the best hitter in the league with the bases loaded."
The crowd of 44,626 stood for the Rodriguez-Braun confrontation, and they were not disappointed. Braun bounced a bases-clearing double down the third-base line -- although his tying run remained only potential as Rodriguez fanned Aramis Ramirez to end the inning.
That also ended Rodriguez's day. In five innings, he allowed seven hits and three runs, striking out four without a walk.
After Vin Mazzaro pitched two shutout innings, the Brewers got to Mark Melancon for a run in the eighth. With one out, Jeff Bianchi dribbled a ball down the first-base line that went for a triple when it caromed off the base of the stands in foul territory, and Gomez's sacrifice fly immediately delivered him to create the one-run tension.