Jason Kubel’s pair of two-run blasts bookended the Arizona Diamondbacks’ offensive attack Thursday afternoon, as the visitors escaped PNC Park with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two playoff-aspiring National League clubs split their four-game series.
Pittsburgh’s postseason dreams are much more realistic than Arizona’s, with the Pirates (63-48) still in possession of the NL’s second wild card berth. However, the D’Backs (57-55) hung in the NL West pursuit with Thursday’s comeback victory, climbing within four games of division-leading San Francisco.
Wandy Rodriguez appeared to be steadying himself in his third Pirates start since arriving from Houston via trade, but catcher Wil Nieves’ two-RBI home run in the sixth put Arizona ahead to stay. The 33-year-old lefty allowed seven hits and two walks in six innings while striking out only two D’Backs.
Arizona starter Joe Saunders quieted the Pittsburgh bats following a three-run second that countered Kubel’s first homer. Saunders got touched up for seven hits as well, but six were merely singles. Kubel’s second home run in the seventh paved the way for the D’Backs to win their third game of the season series, which the Pirates claimed 4-3.
Gaby Sanchez enjoyed a three-hit performance in front of the home crowd, joining exciting rookie Starling Marte on the multi-hit parade. Marte’s triple in the seventh was the Bucs’ only extra-base knock of the game. Pittsburgh is now 2-2 with seven games to go on its current season-long homestand.
Rodriguez struck out Stephen Drew to begin his PNC Park debut, but Aaron Hill scorched a double and Kubel followed with a two-run homer over the Clemente Wall, giving the D’Backs a 2-0 first-inning lead for the second straight game.
But just like Wednesday night, the Bucs jumped in front with a three-run rally. This time they did their damage in the bottom of the second, with Sanchez and Neil Walker leading off the inning with back-to-back singles. Michael McKenry lined an RBI hit to left to plate the Pirates’ first run, and Jordy Mercer followed with a sacrifice fly one out later.
Then things got strange.
Rodriguez lined a shot off Saunders’ leg, deflecting it toward Paul Goldschimdt. The D’Backs’ first baseman fired to the covering Saunders, but the pitcher failed to step on the base. An error was charged to Saunders as McKenry was safe at third on the play; Marte then drove in the Pirates catcher with a hard single to right.
The Pirates started the third with singles from Andrew McCutchen and Sanchez, but Saunders retired Walker, McKenry and Travis Snider in order to keep Arizona within one. Saunders hit a groove in the middle innings, stringing together nine straight outs after Sanchez’ second hit. Still, the seventh-year veteran needed 82 pitches to get through five.
Rodriguez didn’t appear to have his best control for the rare 4:05 p.m. start, as evidence by the seven baserunners (five hits, two walks) he allowed in the first four innings. The D’Backs, one of the more dangerous offensive clubs in the NL, forced the Pirates’ lefthander to throw 65 pitches before he reached the fifth.
Following a one-two-three fifth inning, Rodriguez ran into trouble in the sixth. After one out, Chris Johnson picked up his fifth hit of the series and No. 8 hitter Nieves roped an inside pitch into the left-field bleachers to push the Snakes ahead 4-3.
Despite the Arizona rally, rookie shortstop Mercer made two spectacular plays in the inning: the first was an athletic play to field a grounder far to his right and the second was a surprising over-the-shoulder catch in shallow left field.
Arizona’s onslaught continued in the seventh when Jared Hughes came on in relief of Rodriguez. Hill reached on an infield single to shortstop, then Kubel rifled an opposite-field dinger into the visitors’ bullpen in left-center. The former Minnesota Twin has 25 homers, the third-highest total in the NL.
Saunders’ streak of retired Pirates reached 14 before Marte stung a triple off the right-field chain-link fence with two gone in the seventh. Josh Harrison had an opportunity to bring the Bucs within two, but Saunders induced a pop-up with his 115th and final pitch of the afternoon.
David Hernandez handled the eighth for Arizona, working his way through the middle of the Pirates order while surrendering only Sanchez’ third single of the day. J.J. Putz closed it out, striking out two in a flawless ninth.
Notes: Lefthander Jeff Locke pitched 2 1/3 perfect innings in his first appearance since the Pirates recalled him from Triple-A Indianapolis Wednesday…In addition to his three hits, Sanchez made a fully-extended diving stop of Drew’s hard grounder in the ninth…Attendance was announced at 20,558…The Pirates open a three-game weekend series against San Diego Friday night at PNC Park.