Righty sharp over 7 2/3 innings; Bucs keep hold atop division
SAN FRANCISCO -- Three-fourths of the way through the baseball season's harshest month, the one notorious for springing trap doors on pretenders, and the Pirates continue to celebrate the underdog days of August.
Friday night, the Bucs showed their teeth to Madison Bumgarner briefly, and that's all they needed to remain atop the National League Central behind Charlie Morton.
After the Pirates were blanked on four hits through six innings by the lefty Bumgarner, Clint Barmes jacked a three-run home run with one out in the seventh to erase the 1-0 deficit, and the Bucs went on to a 3-1 win over the Giants at AT&T Park.
Barmes essentially was the replacement in Pittsburgh's lineup for Pedro Alvarez, the team's featured long-ball hitter. Jordy Mercer actually played third, but his shift over from shortstop accomodated Barmes, who came up with the one hit that mattered.
Clint Hurdle, genius or merely prescient?
"The one thing we've been good at is being a team," the Pirates' manager said. "Different guys have shown up at different times throughout the season."
Barmes showed at the perfect time: Behind him, Tony Sanchez was on-deck to bat for Morton without a change in the score; when Barmes connected with Bumgarner's 1-1 slider, not only did Morton have a lead, he had more work to do.
"It was great. I was really happy to see him put that swing on the ball," Morton said. "It was a thing of beauty. Awesome. Otherwise, I'm out."
He stayed in, continuing to be alternately masterful and tenacious for 7 2/3 innings, dismissing the Giants on seven scattered hits, walking one and striking out three.
With their 76th win, the Pirates won for the fourth time in five games on this historically unkind West Coast swing, clinching a winning trip with only two more games here remaining.
The Bucs also protected their one-game division lead over St. Louis, while moving 3 1/2 games up on third-place Cincinnati.
Through the first five games of this trek, the Pirates have allowed a total of 10 runs -- with half of them coming the one time they could afford it, in Thursday night's 10-5 victory over the Giants. In the other four games, the Bucs upped to 56 the total number of times they have held the opposition to two runs or fewer.
"That is an impressive number," Hurdle said. "It speaks to our strength off the mound -- and the defense behind it and the game-calling. It's more than a pitching accomplishment; it's a team accomplishment."
Barmes snapped the Pirates out of the Bumgarner-influenced trance following singles by Gaby Sanchez and Josh Harrison -- and a Neil Walker sacrifice bunt that proved incidental -- by pulling a line drive over the fence in the left-field corner for his fourth homer.
"My mindset was just to get at least one of them in to tie," said Barmes, who did not come through in the fifth inning, popping out after Hurdle had similarly chosen to set the table for him by having Walker bunt following Harrison's leadoff single. "To get another opportunity in that situation, in a one-run game, helps your confidence.
"I was looking to stay inside a pitch I could handle. I saw the slider pretty well -- a pretty good pitch, actually -- and just dropped the barrel on it and drove it."
"It was pretty much where I wanted it," Bumgarner agreed. "He just made an adjustment. That's why they are where they are. It seemed like they were all able to make adjustments. There's no one way to beat them."
The game's first run -- appropriate in a sport of which it is often said that there's no place on the field to hide -- came on a two-out hit in the fourth that fell just out of the reach of a turned-around Mercer, in his first Major League start at third base.
Given the trajectory of left-handed-hitting Roger Kieschnick's soft fly, both Barmes and left fielder Jose Tabata may have had more right to that ball. However, Mercer, twisted around under it, was closest when it dropped.
"Just placed where no one could get to it," said Hurdle, pointing out that Barmes was shifted to the right for Kieschnick and had no realistic chance of recovering. "Jordy ran to the spot he thought the ball would come down, and it went about 10-15 feet to the right of that."
Besides Harrison, the Pirates' other two-hit man was Andrew McCutchen, unable to break his habit of multihit games this month and against the Giants.
When he was going badly -- and, don't forget, this is a guy who was batting .217 a month into the season -- McCutchen's hardest line drives were being caught. Now, his broken-bat-jam jobs fall safely into left field. He did that in the first and added a crisper single in the sixth.
The All-Star center fielder had his ninth multihit game out of the last 12, raising his August average to .451 (32-for-71) and his lifetime mark against the Giants to .408 (29-for-71).
Ultimately, however, the night again belonged to the mound men. Tony Watson bailed Morton out of a mild jam -- Brandon Crawford had doubled with two away -- by getting the final out in the eighth. Mark Melancon then earned his ninth save around an infield single by Hunter Pence.
"I felt good, was pretty efficient and the guys behind me made great plays, and it all added up to me going pretty deep," said Morton, once again Ground Chuck: In his last four starts, he has gotten 56 outs on the ground vs. 17 by air. "I do feel like the sinker is that good that I can throw it a lot. But it's not a free pass. I still have to work ahead [in the count].
"Ground balls won't always equate to me getting outs, but that's the game plan. That's what I go in every game trying to do."