Timely small ball guides Bucs to Game 1 win

April 21st, 2021

The Pirates began Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Tigers batting as cold as the near-freezing temperature in Detroit. But as their bodies warmed up, so did their bats.

After being retired in order the first time through against Tigers starter Michael Fulmer, the Pirates jumped on him in the fourth inning, stringing together four hits and a walk to score three runs and kick-start a 3-2 win at Comerica Park.

The frame began with a single from the Pirates’ best contact hitter in Adam Frazier, before Phillip Evans ripped a 105.7 mph grounder for another single. Bryan Reynolds, who is back over .300 after a down 2020 season, also singled for Pittsburgh’s first run.

Colin Moran nearly kept the string of base hits going, but Tigers third baseman Zack Short -- who made his MLB debut on Wednesday -- robbed Moran of a single with a great diving stop. After Jacob Stallings drew a walk and Gregory Polanco lined out, Erik González kept his RBI-heavy start to the season intact, collecting his ninth with yet another single.

Manager Derek Shelton believed the effort was there the first time through the order on Wednesday, as the Pirates put the ball in play in all but two of their first nine plate appearances. 

“I think we found a couple holes,” Shelton said. “[Frazier] hit the ball. Phil went backside. We did a nice job.”

Though the three runs scored in the fourth inning were the only ones the Pirates plated in the seven-inning affair, the offense continued to put pressure on Detroit’s pitching staff throughout the other frames. Kevin Newman led off the fifth with a single, two men reached base in the sixth and the bases were loaded for Moran in the seventh.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the ground balls that found outfield grass in the fourth inning weren’t all successful; a hard-hit bouncer up the middle from Moran was fielded on a dive by second baseman Willi Castro, who fired to first for the final out.

“We could have broken that game open late if not [for an] unbelievable play by Castro to save two runs there at the end, but I thought our at-bats got better as the game went on,” Shelton said.

Despite the struggles at the plate for regulars like Newman and Dustin Fowler, the Pirates entered the game in the top half of the Majors with a .234 average, placing them 13th. It’s not remarkably better than their .220 average from last season -- which was tied for the fourth-worst mark in MLB -- but the club has been able to string together hits at the right time, as it showed Wednesday.

It also helps that the Pirates are in the top 10 in the Majors in on-base percentage with a .321 clip. So when the team is able to grind out at-bats as it did in the second half of Game 1, it sets Pittsburgh up to score runs, even with soft contact and small ball.

“It just seems like even in innings where we’re not scoring, we’re having a lot better at-bats and we’ve got guys on more frequently,” said Tyler Anderson, who allowed two runs in five innings on Wednesday. “That whole offense is doing a great job of battling.”