PITTSBURGH -- Earlier this week, after losing 24 of their first 28 games since the All-Star break, the Pirates decided it was time for a change in the clubhouse. They learned during that stretch just how hard it can be to win games in the Majors, so they appreciated the opportunity to celebrate each one.
So, after coming back in the ninth inning to beat the Cubs, 3-2, on Friday night at PNC Park, the Pirates celebrated accordingly. They got together and named players of the game: Joe Musgrove, who tallied nine strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, and Kevin Newman, who slapped a walk-off single up the middle.
They enjoyed the victory, their third in the last four games, and Musgrove spoke to the group to share a message about unity and the importance of the final 40 games, even for a team that has fallen far out of any sort of postseason race. He’d been wanting to say it for a while, he said, but Friday felt like the right time.
“These are the guys that we’re going to have in here for the next couple years, for the most part,” Musgrove said. “There’s no way to get live, game-type action and game-type reps other than in the actual game. Although this season might seem like a wash to some people or might seem like it’s out of reach, I think there’s a lot of things to gain in the last month and a half of the season.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to go out and work on the things that you want to work on and improve some part of your game … whatever it is, just something we can improve on to help catapult us into next year, because we’re going to have all the same guys here. Building that chemistry and building that unity in the last month and a half is going to be really important for us.”
With the Pirates down a run, Bryan Reynolds reached on an infield single with one out in the ninth then moved to second on a Starling Marte groundout. With two outs and first base open, the Cubs decided to intentionally walk All-Star first baseman Josh Bell. Then Colin Moran walked on five pitches from Brandon Kintzler, loading the bases.
“I felt myself shaking, then [after] ball four to Colin I was just like, ‘All right, here we go’ and just rolled into it,” Tucker said. “I calmed down. I felt really good up there. I felt like I had done it before even though I hadn’t. That was the coolest walk I’ll probably ever have in my career.”
Then came Newman, another rookie playing his way into a prominent role. He also ran up a full count against Kintzler before bouncing a hard grounder to center field. The Pirates have five walk-off wins this season, and Newman has driven in the winning run three times -- on a 10th-inning double (April 6), an 11th-inning walk (June 23) and Friday’s ninth-inning single.
“They’re exciting, that’s for sure. Those are moments you dream of as a kid,” Newman said. “To be able to do that and come through for your teammates is a lot of fun.”
It was only the Pirates’ seventh win in 32 games since the All-Star break, but it felt like one worth celebrating.
“We talked to [manager Clint Hurdle] the other day, and he made a really good point of saying you stay in the big leagues, you’re good, and you stay here until you suck, then you go home,” Musgrove said. “We all understand this game’s hard.”
For instance: If not for that rally, the Pirates would have been stewing over another frustrating loss. Musgrove, feeling as good as he has all season, cruised through seven brilliant innings on 87 pitches before giving up two hits in the seventh. He utilized his entire six-pitch arsenal, pairing and tunneling pitches after a recent dive into his own numbers.
“Some nights, the stars align and you’re able to execute every pitch,” Musgrove said. “That’s kind of how I felt tonight.”
With runners on the corners and one out in the eighth, Hurdle called on his best pitcher, closer Felipe Vázquez, to protect their one-run lead. It was not an easy decision, Hurdle said, but he knew it was the right one.
Then Vazquez, practically untouchable all season, gave up a go-ahead triple to left-handed-hitting Tony Kemp. Before that at-bat, he had inherited 10 runners this season and not allowed any of them to score. He had given up exactly one extra-base hit to a left-handed hitter since April. Nobody was more likely to get the Pirates out of that jam unscathed than Vazquez.
“I have nothing but confidence in him,” Musgrove said. “I told him after, I said, ‘Hey man, it’s another day tomorrow. Stuff happens.’”
Then the bottom of the ninth happened. If this is indeed the young core of next year’s team, they gave Pittsburgh something to feel good about on Friday.
“Joe said it best tonight when we were in here: We’ve got a lot to play for, and we’ve got a lot to fight for and work for, especially going into the end of the season and into next year,” Tucker said. “We feel good about where we’re at. Just excited to keep playing.”