PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates preach the principle that good things happen when you find a way to put the ball in play.
That was put into practice Thursday when Corey Dickerson hit what should've been an inning-ending groundout down the third-base line in the bottom of the seventh inning. Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva bobbled the scoop, allowing Gregory Polanco to score the go-ahead run. The fielding error would prove to be the difference in the Pirates' 5-4 victory at PNC Park.
"Whenever the catcher catches the ball and they call you out, you can't do anything about it," Dickerson said. "You try to make [the defense] make a play no matter what. You try to put the bat on the ball earlier in the count. When it gets to two strikes, you've just got to battle."
The Pirates have now won three straight -- as well as eight of their last nine -- and claim sole possession of first place in the National League Central. Much of their early success has been the product of a lineup that thrives at making contact and avoiding strikeouts. The Pirates entered play on Thursday with 326 strikeouts as a team, the fewest in the NL, and ended the night with the NL's second-highest-scoring offense.
"Our group has taken it upon themselves to have a better battle in the box based on what we've gone through," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And we're experiencing the difference now."
San Diego lefty Eric Lauer began to unravel in the bottom of the fourth inning. Francisco Cervelli drew a one-out walk and later scored on Dickerson's double to left field. Josh Bell, who singled earlier in the inning, tagged up from third base on a David Freese sacrifice fly to tie the game. Sean Rodriguez then laced a double to left field to drive in Dickerson and put Pittsburgh up 3-2.
The Padres jumped back out in front in the top of the fifth inning with a two-run double from Eric Hosmer that hit off the top of the wall in right-center field, just inches shy of becoming his seventh home run of the season. Bell answered with an RBI single to center field in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game at four runs apiece.
Pirates right-hander Chad Kuhl showed flashes of brilliance early, striking out four in two perfect innings to begin the game, but ultimately pitched his shortest outing of the season. He allowed four earned runs on six hits through 4 1/3 innings.
With Kuhl out of the game, Pittsburgh's bullpen continued its dominance and managed to keep the Padres off the board after the fifth inning. Closer Felipe Vazquez shut the door by striking out the side in the ninth to record his ninth save of the season.
"They've been awesome," Kuhl said. "They did an awesome job tonight, and they have been doing an awesome job. All those guys have been just lock-down."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Left-hander Steven Brault took over for Kuhl on the mound with one out and Hosmer on second base in the top of the fifth. He stranded the runner in scoring position by inducing a groundout before striking out Jose Pirela. Brault allowed three hits over 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. He also tacked on a double in the sixth to boot.
"His stuff was good," Hurdle said. "His two-seamer was good. He gave us length when we needed it. … He stopped the rally, then he made pitches to keep them off the plate and he stayed aggressive throughout the outing."
After a rough start to the season, the Pirates bullpen has put together a 2.45 ERA since April 12, the Majors' lowest mark during that time. Vazquez has led the way after giving up four runs on Opening Day, allowing only one earned run and striking out 20 batters in 18 innings over his last 17 appearances.
HE SAID IT
"We'll keep proving it, but we're a good team. We're here to stay. We've got a really good starting lineup, a really good bench. We've got a really good starting rotation, a really good bullpen. We're a force. It's fun to be a part of." -- Brault, on the Pirates' early season success
Ivan Nova will be on the mound and top outfield prospect Austin Meadows will join the team when the Pirates face the Padres on Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET at PNC Park. Nova is looking to rebound from a rough three-game stretch, while Meadows is looking to make his long-awaited MLB debut. Right-hander Tyson Ross will start for San Diego.