PITTSBURGH -- With runners on second and third and one out in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon at PNC Park, Kevin Newman chopped a pinch-hit single up the middle. Twins center fielder Byron Buxton raced in to retrieve the ball, but by the time he reached it, it was too late. Cole Tucker crossed the plate followed by Bryan Reynolds, then the Pirates finally had something to feel good about.
Newman’s walk-off single to center off Taylor Rogers gave Pittsburgh a 6-5 victory over Minnesota, snapping the club’s seven-game losing streak and setting off the Bucs’ first socially distanced celebration in the infield. The joyful Tucker couldn’t help himself, leaping into Newman and knocking him over. Then came a round of air high-fives, with a few real ones mixed in.
“Anytime you celebrate, I don’t care how far apart we’re standing,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “We can have people stand on the bridge and fake high-five, as far as I’m concerned.”
It was just one win, only the Pirates’ third in 13 games this season, but it was the kind of game they’re hoping to see more often in 2020. JT Brubaker worked around an early three-run homer in his first Major League start. Chris Stratton and Sam Howard stepped up to record big outs for Pittsburgh’s beleaguered bullpen. And it ended with Newman, a breakout rookie last year, coming through in the clutch with his fifth career walk-off, all coming since the start of last season. No other player has more than three walk-offs in that span.
“Kind of a huge bit of relief for myself and the team to be able to come through when we really need one,” Newman said. “It's a great feeling to come back. Hopefully this is the start of something a little different than what we've had lately.”
Three sequences from Thursday’s game showed what the Pirates still believe their struggling lineup is capable of.
Reaching the river
In the second inning, Gregory Polanco launched a three-run homer out to right-center field that sailed a projected 446 feet before bouncing into the Allegheny River.
That was just about all the Pirates could muster against Twins starter Kenta Maeda, who did not allow another baserunner until he walked Josh Bell with two outs in the sixth inning. Still, it was a good sign for Polanco and, thus, for the lineup. Polanco entered the game with one hit, three walks and 10 strikeouts in 23 plate appearances since coming off the COVID-19 injured list, and he admitted Thursday that he’s still searching for his timing.
“Right now, I’m missing a lot of pitches in the zone. I’m trying to make more contact. But like I said, I’m feeling better,” Polanco said. “Every at-bat, I feel more comfortable and more comfortable. I’m very close to being 100 percent ready with my swing, so I keep working every day in the cages and with the hitting coach.”
The Pirates desperately need more power in their lineup, and Polanco is one of the few hitters they have who has proven he can provide it. And when Polanco connects like he did against Maeda, it’s a tantalizing reminder of his potential at the plate.
“Anytime you get Polanco smiling, it’s a great thing,” Shelton said. “To see that smile after that homer, it was big.”
‘That’s what speed do’
In the eighth, Jarrod Dyson -- who coined the above phrase when he was with the Royals -- created a key run on his own. Dyson turned an 0-2 count into a walk against Sergio Romo, then stole second and third base before dashing home on Phillip Evans’ groundout to cut the Twins’ two-run lead in half.
Shelton has often spoken about Pittsburgh’s need to be aggressive on the basepaths, and Dyson displayed how effective of a weapon his speed can be. As Shelton said, the 35-year-old speedster has the green light at all times.
“He’s been stealing bases for 100 years,” Shelton said. “I tell him all the time he’s one of the oldest guys in baseball, and one of the things about it is his speed has not deteriorated. We knew that coming in.”
The late rally
Colin Moran, who had just one hit in his last 16 at-bats, led off the ninth with a bloop single to left. Then Reynolds, who entered the day batting just .135, pulled a double down the left-field line that pushed the pinch-runner Tucker to third base. After Polanco struck out, Shelton sent up Newman to pinch-hit for JT Riddle.
Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, Newman has shown a knack for delivering when it matters most. But he has also struggled this season, hitting just .167 with a .461 OPS in his first nine games, so the game-winning rally was cathartic for Newman as much as it was for the entire team.
“We've had some struggles early on,” Newman said, “and hopefully we can start turning around.”
No team in the Majors has scored more runs in the ninth inning or later than the Pirates this season, but a lot of those runs fell into the same category: Too little, too late in a loss. Newman’s single up the middle, though, was right on time.
“We’ve continued to play hard and come up short. You continue to grind,” Shelton said. “But to come out on the winning end of a game like that, against a team like that, it feels a lot better to smile.”