PITTSBURGH -- Jordy Mercer and Tony Watson go back the better part of a decade. The Pirates drafted them a year apart, Watson in 2007 and Mercer in '08, and they became teammates with Double-A Altoona in 2010. Watson made it to Pittsburgh first, in 2011, and Mercer joined him
PITTSBURGH -- Jordy Mercer and Tony Watson go back the better part of a decade. The Pirates drafted them a year apart, Watson in 2007 and Mercer in '08, and they became teammates with Double-A Altoona in 2010. Watson made it to Pittsburgh first, in 2011, and Mercer joined him a season later.
On Saturday night, their careers brought them 60 feet and 6 inches apart in a pivotal moment: bases loaded, one out in the eighth inning of a tie game at PNC Park.
"It's an awkward at-bat, to be honest with you. It really is," Mercer said. "He's one of my best friends. He's been one of my good friends for a long time."
The awkward at-bat punctuated a wild rally in unusual fashion, as Watson wound up plunking his old friend to drive in the go-ahead run in the Pirates' 6-5 win over the Giants. The victory extended Pittsburgh's winning streak to a season-high-tying five games and put the Bucs back in a tie for first place in the National League Central.
"Just continue to find ways to win. That's the biggest thing," Mercer said. "We're just having fun. We've got each other's backs. We keep grinding."
Saturday was a grind from start to finish. After a 93-minute rain delay, the Pirates and Giants went back and forth late into the night. Francisco Cervelli broke one tie with a two-run homer off Jeff Samardzija in the sixth, but San Francisco knotted it up against Pittsburgh's setup men.
Andrew McCutchen, once again greeted with ovations all night, smashed a double to left-center off reliever Michael Feliz in the seventh and scored on Brandon Belt's single. Alen Hanson, another former Pirate, singled and scored the tying run on Austin Jackson's double to left off former Giant George Kontos in the eighth. So Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called upon closer Felipe Vazquez to take over and record the final five outs.
"This isn't something you can do all the time," Hurdle said. "But he's got that ability. It's a weapon to have in today's game, there's no doubt."
Vazquez needed 21 pitches to finish the eighth. Hurdle said Vazquez would not have returned in the ninth if the Pirates didn't have a lead. Nine pitches later, they did.
Josh Bell lined a leadoff double to right-center off Watson, sending a jolt into the Pirates dugout. Bell moved to third on Corey Dickerson's groundout, then the Giants intentionally walked Cervelli. Pinch-hitter David Freese hit a grounder to third, and Evan Longoria first moved to tag Bell a few steps down the line.
"I thought the way the ball was hit, I'd be able to turn the double play," Longoria said.
But Bell stutter-stepped and juked his way around Longoria -- evoking memories of Josh Harrison's finest baserunning acrobatics -- to return safely to the bag. Freese hustled to first, leaving Longoria with no play and loading the bases.
"I wasn't going to get tagged easily. J-Hay told me I took a page out of his book," Bell said, smiling. "It's not even close to full J-Hay, but I'm getting there."
Up came Mercer, who swung and missed at a first-pitch changeup before turning to absorb a sinker that proved to be the difference in the game.
"That whole inning unfolded the right way for us," Bell said. "[Mercer] easily could have gotten out of the way of that ball, but for him to wear it for the team right there is huge."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Strong Coffee: Nearly six hours before the first pitch was thrown, Gregory Polanco stood in the batter's box at PNC Park and hit balls off a tee in a series of drills designed by hitting coach Jeff Branson. For weeks, the Pirates have been working to shorten Polanco's swing in an effort to reverse the slump that cooled his torrid start to the season.
The practice paid off in the third inning, when Polanco launched a game-tying home run to right-center field off Samardzija. It was Polanco's eighth homer of the season but only his third since a two-homer game at Wrigley Field on April 12. Since then, Polanco's average declined and hovered around .200 for about two weeks. But he's showing signs he may be ready to break out again.
"I think we're getting closer," Hurdle said. "He's close. I think it's headed in the right direction, I really do."
This is the 18th time in franchise history the Pirates have won at least 23 of their first 39 games. The last Pittsburgh team to do it was the 1992 club (also 23-16) that finished 96-66, won the NL East and lost in the NL Championship Series.
HE SAID IT
"Everybody will say it's just another hitter, but obviously it's an old teammate. It's a friend. It's different. It's hard to put in words, but it's a different feeling. You want to get everybody out, but he's a special player and just really cool to go compete against."-- Pirates starter Chad Kuhl, on striking out McCutchen
"There's some things we're talking about. … He's a competitor. He doesn't like giving up runs, so I think it's something that I'm not ready to share here with everybody. We're going to talk about it. We've had some conversation. I thought he made a really good step forward last night. It seemed like tonight it wasn't quite the same."-- Hurdle on Kontos, who has given up runs in three of his last four appearances
Ivan Nova will look to bounce back from his shortest start of the season when he faces the Giants at 1:35 p.m. ET at PNC Park on Sunday. Nova was pulled after allowing five earned runs on six hits through two innings of work. Derek Holland will get the start for San Francisco.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.