PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates and Reds played a series devoid of dispute, free of fights and -- perhaps most surprising -- without rain. Their focus was on the field, and that turned out to be a good thing for the home team.
Pittsburgh completed a three-game sweep of Cincinnati with a 9-8 victory on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. The Pirates won three consecutive games for the first time since July 1-3, and swept their first series since June 21-23. The Bucs secured their 11th win of the season against the Reds -- they have 44 against everyone else -- and their 10th straight home victory over Cincinnati.
The Pirates still sit in last place in the National League Central, and they’ve won only 11 of 41 games since the All-Star break. But they outplayed the Reds for three days at PNC Park -- first in dramatic fashion with a walk-off win, then in a 14-0 rout, and finally with what turned out to be a narrow victory.
Several players have said recently that the process of building something better for next season starts now. Maybe they’ll be able to continue what began this weekend.
“We’ve been looking for momentum since the second half of the season, and it’s been hard to get,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “We got some this series. We played good baseball. We connected the dots much better. We pitched it better. We caught it better. We hit it better. Different people showed up throughout the series, as well.
“Nothing -- nothing -- breeds confidence like success. Nothing. You can talk to people. You can encourage ‘em. You can video. You can do all those things. But at the end of the day, when guys go out and get hits, score runs, pitchers get outs, guys get wins and saves and all that, that’s where you get your momentum and your traction. We were able to create some and earn some this weekend.”
It began at the top of the order. Rookie shortstop Kevin Newman had hit leadoff plenty of times this season, but he did so primarily against left-handed starters. On Friday, Hurdle decided to bat Newman first regardless of who was pitching. Newman scored three runs on Saturday night, and he was even better in Sunday’s series finale.
Wearing "Newms" on his jersey for the Players' Weekend finale, Newman went 4-for-4 with an RBI, two steals and three runs scored, including a run in the eighth that proved to be the difference in the game.
“You can’t draw that up. Every once in a while you do something that works out pretty well,” Hurdle said. “Newman’s done a good job when he’s led off this year. It’s come to the point where the numbers are just better … most of the numbers -- the raw, hard numbers -- are better with him up there with what he’s done. He gave us a shot in the arm this weekend, for sure.”
So, unsurprisingly, did fellow rookie Bryan Reynolds. Batting with two outs in the second and the bases loaded against Reds starter Trevor Bauer, "B-Rey" ripped a three-run triple high off the Clemente Wall in right field. The NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate’s drive put the Pirates ahead, 5-3.
The Pirates scored three more runs in a wild third inning, a rally Newman capped with an RBI single that dropped in front of left fielder Josh VanMeter. That gave rookie starter Dario Agrazal some breathing room, and he bounced back from a shaky first inning that included several defensive miscues by allowing only one run over his final four innings.
“When the offense is doing their job and putting in work, it helps any pitcher feel a lot more comfortable,” said "Rey" through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “Super proud of our offense stepping through, doing their responsibility and their job. I definitely felt comfortable. Hopefully we continue this.”
The Reds made it interesting, though. Kyle Farmer homered off Michael Feliz in the sixth inning and VanMeter blasted a two-run homer off Kyle Crick and into the Allegheny River in the eighth. The Pirates got one of those runs back in the bottom of the inning as Newman singled, stole second and scored when a fan reached over the fence and grabbed Starling Marte’s fly ball to right-center.
Closer Felipe Vazquez, once again entering the game to “Hells Bells” as a Players’ Weekend tribute to Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, returned to the mound after recording the final out of the eighth. The last time Vazquez recorded a four-out save was the Pirates’ final game of the first half, and that rust showed -- not in the leadoff homer he gave up to Eugenio Suarez, but in his reaction.
Vazquez didn’t realize the Pirates had been up by two runs until there were two outs in the ninth. For a few minutes, he thought the game was tied.