Difo, Bucs walk off Reds in Clemente fashion

Pirates pull off series victory on hustle play in 9th after Reds' tying rally in 8th

September 16th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- On the day they celebrated a Pittsburgh legend, the Pirates capped a momentous day with a walk-off win.

hit a pinpoint double and dashed home on a groundout to give the Bucs a 5-4 victory over the Reds on Roberto Clemente Day at PNC Park.

It was a special day for the Bucs before they even took the field. Players and staff donned the legendary No. 21 of Clemente, and the late Hall of Famer’s number was etched into the grass in right field, where he used to make heroic plays. The Clemente family was in attendance, and then, through six innings, Pittsburgh held a two-run lead.

But late in the game, it appeared to be turning toward yet another loss to the Reds, who entered the contest 9-2 against the Pirates on the season. Cincinnati rallied, tying the game on Kyle Farmer’s solo home run in the eighth inning.

When a player like Difo is on a team’s bench, though, there’s always a good chance you’ll get a late-game contribution.

Difo sent a ball high down the third-base line, and left fielder Max Schrock got to it in plenty of time -- just a bit too aggressively. He overran the ball, it dropped just inside the line and spun out of play for a ground-rule double.

Was it luck? Maybe the Pirates are superstitious, but a high flyout to right in the ninth in a one-run loss came just a few feet shy of a home run for the Reds at the Clemente Wall on Tuesday, then this bit of crazy circumstance. Manager Derek Shelton had to wonder if the Great One influenced the game.

“Maybe he was with us this whole [series],” Shelton said.

Difo gets the benefit of the doubt given how clutch he’s been in late and close situations (defined as plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the potential tying run at least on deck). The utility player has slashed .458/.519/.500 in 24 at-bats in those clutch moments.

How does he do it? A lot of it is intense preparation. When Difo doesn’t think he’ll be called on to pinch-hit in a given situation, he’ll often go back and get some cage work in so he’s ready when the moment comes.

Then, when his number -- in this case, No. 21 -- is called, Difo doesn’t really try to slow things down too much. He takes the challenge head on.

“Every time I get into the box, my mindset is to be aggressive,” Difo said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “However, never allowing my aggressiveness to get in the way of what pitch I'm looking for.”

On the basepaths, Difo took it to the next level. Shelton called the 29-year-old an “Energizer bunny” earlier this season, and he powered up and didn’t shut off to score the winning run. Colin Moran grounded out to first, and while the ball caromed out of Joey Votto’s glove, they had plenty of time to throw out the slow-footed Pirates first baseman.

The problem for the Reds was that reliever Mychal Givens, while securing the out at first from Votto, stepped past the bag, and his momentum was too much to overcome as he fired home.

By then, third-base coach and Puerto Rico native Joey Cora had already guided Difo to score the walk-off run, then Cora went running off the field in glee after winning on Roberto Clemente Day -- although it was a bit of a blur on Difo’s end.

“I'm going to be honest with you: I don't remember seeing Joey,” Difo said. “I don't know if he was holding me, or I don't know if he was telling me to go, but I saw that pitcher take off towards first base and I just felt like I had an opportunity to go home. And I took it.”

Difo and Clemente are very different players. The former is rarely a starter, having to make his spot on the team batting off the bench in most cases. The latter started game after game in right field, even playing through stretches when he was banged up.

But in one special play on a special night, the two Latin American players shared a few things in common. Difo used Clemente’s trademark speed and aggressiveness that the Great One used to stretch hits and rob them in right field. Difo read the play off Votto as Clemente would read balls hit to the right-field corner so he could make the best play possible.

Most of all, Difo gave it his all until the final out, signifying the spirit with which Clemente became a leader by example for the Pirates, and why -- in small part -- his legacy lives on in baseball to this day.

"I believe that Clemente is really proud right now,” Difo said, “because this is the way Clemente played the game."