Pirates keep pace in playoff race with walk-off win
Sanchez lifts sacrifice fly to score Mercer in comeback victory
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates are officially in Operation PUSH. With apologies to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, this push is for a place in baseball's 2014 postseason. There are plenty of tomorrows left -- but they mean little if you don't take care of today.
The Bucs took good care of their latest "today," rallying Wednesday to erase Atlanta's 2-0 eighth-inning lead to upend the Braves, 3-2, and put a walk-off end to their seven-game losing streak. With the Giants also winning on Wednesday, the Pirates are now 2 1/2 games out of the second Wild Card spot.
"A shot in the arm. A real nice shot in the arm," manager Clint Hurdle said after Gaby Sanchez's ninth-inning sacrifice fly saved the Bucs from dragging a long losing streak into a weekend series in Milwaukee.
Day One of the push, on Tuesday, didn't go well at all. Andrew McCutchen came back, but in a lopsided loss.
On Wednesday's Day Two, the return of Gerrit Cole went far better. The rotation linchpin set up the win with seven superb innings.
The Bucs had rallied into a tie with two in the eighth before notching their 10th walk-off of the season.
"Just pushing, that's all it is," Sanchez said of the seven silent innings at left-hander Alex Wood's behest. "We knew we would get our chance again. We've been doing it all season, so it's kinda part of us now."
It had been a long time since PNC Park rocked as vibrantly as during the critical, perhaps season-turning eighth and ninth innings.
Jordy Mercer started the ninth with a single off righty David Carpenter, and with one out, Starling Marte's fly to left-center clanged off left fielder Justin Upton's glove for a two-base error. Mercer pulled into third on the misplay and walked home as Sanchez drilled Carpenter's first pitch to deep center.
"In that situation, I'm just looking to get a pitch that lets me stay up the middle," said Sanchez, who had triggered the penultimate inning's tying rally by drawing the Bucs' first walk in two nights.
Wood had matched his best career start by blanking the Pirates on three hits through seven innings, before leaving in the eighth with the tying runs on base.
With the Pirates' season possibly hanging in the balance, Sanchez's leadoff walk ignited the 26,581 in the park. Travis Snider's ground-rule double down the right-field line and in-and-out of the corner field boxes fanned the fan flames. It placed Pittsburgh runners in scoring position for the first time since a first-inning leadoff double by Josh Harrison, who then promptly got picked off second before Wood made another pitch.
"You can't walk the leadoff guy and then go 0-2 to the only lefty in their lineup [Snider] and hang a breaking ball. That [breaking ball] has to be buried," Wood said.
"There's not a lot of room down there, but fortunately we were able to get it inside the chalk and set up the inning," said Snider, who waved off having that ball kick up chalk as a possible sign of the Bucs' changing fortunes. "We don't look at one play in a game as an omen with the way the baseball gods work."
With righty Jordan Walden taking over on the mound, one run came in on Chris Stewart's bat-controlled swing, punching a grounder to first base. Then Walden's wild pitch -- on ball four to pinch-hitter Neil Walker -- escorted Snider home from third.
Other than going 0-for-2 at bat, Cole could not have done anything more to throw the Pirates' switch. In his first start since Independence Day and after 6 1/2 weeks on the DL with a sore latissimus, he allowed five hits and two runs in seven innings, with four walks (one intentional) and six strikeouts.
"He pitched very well," Hurdle said. "Used all four of his pitches, efficiently. It was really good to see him on the mound."
For a long time, it looked like Cole's understandably wobbly beginning would be enough to torment the Pirates. He walked his first man, Jayson Heyward, and an out later gave up two singles, the second by Upton delivering Heyward.
"I was a little shaky in the first with the location, but it started to get better as the game went on," Cole said.
After Evan Gattis began the second with a double. Cole retired 12 straight before another double, by Heyward, led to the Braves doubling the score in the sixth.
Snider, who earlier had already extended his hitting streak to 11 games, kept the game manageable by nailing a runner at home from right field in the sixth. Chris Johnson's bases-loaded single scored Heyward to make it 2-0, but Snider's throw cut down Freddie Freeman also trying to score from second.
"We worked out of that jam with the help of Travis," Cole said, "and we were able to put our foot down when we needed to, and get those late runs."
Good pitching, too, must be contagious. The Pirates had not had an ultra quality start (seven-plus innings, two runs or fewer) for 10 games. After Cole provided the rotation salvation, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon cured the recent bullpen woes, too, each working a perfect inning in relief.