It was just one game, but the Pittsburgh Pirates hope it has long-lasting effects.
Behind two mammoth homers from third baseman Pedro Alvarez and seven shutout innings from starting pitcher James McDonald, the Pirates earned a critical 9-0 Tuesday night win over the team they’re chasing in the wild-card race, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The resounding win brought the Pirates (69-60) back to within two games of the visiting Cardinals (71-58), who won 4-3 Monday night in the opener of the ongoing three-game series. Pittsburgh has now won two of its last four after a four-game losing streak as the Bucs try to salvage a difficult August.
The Pirates put on quite a show for an appreciative crowd of 17,000-plus, led by perhaps the best night of Alvarez’ young MLB career. The Bucs’ No. 24 hit his 24th and 25th homers of the season and added a double and a single for 11 total bases in five at-bats.
“My biggest thing has been to keep it simple and put a good swing on the ball,” Alvarez said after boosting his batting average to .247. “A lot of nights you’re not going to feel comfortable but you have to try to stay consistent.”
The 25-year-old also backed up McDonald in the field, making a fully-extended diving stop early and starting an around-the-horn double play late. The lanky 6-foot-4 McDonald shut down the powerful Cardinals for the second straight time, as he pitched six scoreless in St. Louis 11 days ago. The righthander allowed only three baserunners (two hits) in his seven innings, striking out five in his 12th win of the season.
“He put up a dominant effort against a World Series-winning club,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “James has to continue to pursue greatness and the rest will take care of itself. He won’t be great every night but he has the potential to be.”
Despite McDonald’s big night, Alvarez’ offensive fireworks will likely be embossed in the brains of those in attendance. His two-run opposite-field shot over the North Side Notch in the third made the score 3-0 Pirates, and his double in the fifth drove in another, but it was all prologue to his 470-foot tater over the centerfield bleachers. The solo homer, Alvarez’ career-high 25th, was the longest hit by a Pirate in the nearly 12-year history of PNC Park.
McDonald got off to an effective start in the first, retiring the side in order on two strikeouts and a flyout. The Pirates offense may have gotten a boost from that, as it produced a quick run in the bottom half.
Jose Tabata drew a leadoff walk from Westbrook, followed by Travis Snider’s ground single to right that bumped Tabata to third. Andrew McCutchen struck out looking, but Garrett Jones lined a sacrifice fly to right to put the Bucs on the scoreboard.
The Pirates nearly added another run in the second when Josh Harrison singled and McDonald bunted him to second with two outs. Tabata shot a hard single to right, and Carlos Beltran’s throw was on target for catcher Yadier Molina to grab just before Harrison plowed his shoulder into the Cardinals backstop’s head.
Molina improbably held onto the ball for the out, but he was shaky upon standing and had to be replaced by Tony Cruz.
As loud as the collision was, it may have been surpassed by the crack of Pedro Alvarez’ bat in the third. McCutchen drilled a double off the leftfield wall after one out and he was still there after Jones lined out. However, “Cutch” could trot home after Alvarez slammed one of the most impressive home runs in PNC Park history well over the 410-foot sign in deep left-center.
The lefty-swinging Alvarez turned around an inside fastball from Westbrook, launching it almost as high as it was far. Centerfielder Jon Jay and leftfielder Matt Holliday simply jogged a few paces before watching Alvarez’ 24th dinger fly into the bleachers.
Meanwhile, McDonald maintained his level on the mound. Only Molina’s single in the second kept him from facing the minimum through five innings. His defense augmented his effort in the fifth, with shortstop Clint Barmes helping turn a splendid double play with Harrison and Tabata chasing down David Freese’s long fly to left to close the inning.
The Bucs put their previously-dormant offensive skills on display in the bottom of the fifth, plating four runs to stretch the lead to 7-0. McCutchen and Jones reached base via back-to-back singles in front of Alvarez, who made it a three-hit night with an RBI double off the Clemente Wall. Michael McKenry drove in another with a ground ball through the left side.
Harrison was up next, and Westbrook’s first pitch to the Pirates second baseman hit him in the lower body, triggering a warning to both benches by home plate umpire Adrian Johnson. Hurdle protested the mutual warning, but the Bucs continued undeterred, getting a two-RBI single to left by Barmes.
McDonald finished his night as well as he started it, stranding Jay at second after his bloop double in the sixth. After watching Alvarez’ second homer bounce near the Allegheny River, “J-Mac” sat down the Cardinals in order to close his seventh and final frame.
Snider closed the scoring with an RBI triple in the seventh, and Chris Resop (eighth) and Hisanori Takahashi (ninth) cleaned up the rest of the combined shutout from the bullpen.
Notes: The pivotal series wraps up Wednesday night at 7:05 with Pittsburgh’s Wandy Rodriguez opposing Joe Kelly…Second baseman Neil Walker missed his second straight game with lower-back stiffness…Hurdle on the collision between Harrison and Molina: “A baseball play was made at home plate. I’ll leave the rest of my comments for the league office.”