Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen entered the all-star break with a batting average over .300, an on-base percentage nearing .400 and his defensive reputation growing. The only thing missing was power, as he had 10 home runs through last week after 31 in 2012.
The three-time all-star has started to rectify that situation, and quickly.
McCutchen stroked a pair of two-run homers in the opening four innings Monday night, giving him four in his last four games and boosting the Pirates to a 6-5 victory over struggling Washington at Nationals Park. Pittsburgh has won two straight after dropping three in a row, while the Nats are 0-4 since the break.
Washington’s Jayson Werth matched McCutchen with two dingers and four RBIs, including an opposite-field shot to right off Pirates closer Jason Grilli in the ninth inning that whittled down a three-run Pittsburgh cushion. Despite leading the National League with 30 saves, Grilli has struggled recently, allowing 11 runs in his past eight appearances.
Following Werth’s homer, Grilli struck out two and allowed a double to Denard Span, but the 36-year-old reliever left the game with arm discomfort after one pitch to pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi. Vin Mazzaro was summoned from the bullpen to finish the game, and he got Lombardozzi to ground out to do just that.
Grilli’s injury somewhat overshadowed that the Pirates (58-39) climbed within 1 1/2 games of idle St. Louis for first place in the NL Central, while also maintaining at least a three-game advantage over Cincinnati for the top wild-card spot. The Reds played late Monday night in San Francisco.
Pittsburgh’s pitching got dicey near the end of Monday’s game, but a strong start from Charlie Morton got them off on the right track. Morton didn’t allow a hit until former Pirate Adam LaRoche sent a solo homer into the right-field stands to lead off the bottom of the fifth, which made the score 5-1.
Morton pitched into the seventh, striking out five, until Werth took him deep to cut the Pirates edge to 5-3. Morton’s only walk of the night two outs later sent Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle to his deep relief staff to stem the damage. Bryan Morris earned the final out of the seventh to preserve Morton’s line at three earned runs.
The Bucs added a run in the top of the eighth when Pedro Alvarez singled, Russell Martin walked and Jose Tabata bunted both runners ahead to second and third. Gaby Sanchez popped out – the Pirates have gone more than a month without a sacrifice fly – but Craig Stammen’s wild pitch allowed Alvarez to sprint home with the visitors’ sixth run.
Although Tony Watson steered through a scoreless home half of the eighth, the Nationals (48-51) got going in the ninth when LaRoche drew a walk ahead of Werth’s second round-tripper. Grilli’s pitches were consistently up and sometimes out of the zone, allowing Washington to tee off when he finally found the plate.
Nats starter Dan Haren’s offerings caught too much of the strike zone as well, especially against McCutchen. A Jordy Mercer walk in the first inning preceded McCutchen’s first homer, a poke over the high wall in right-center to put the Pirates up 2-0. No. 22 drove in Starling Marte in the third with his 14th bomb of the season, this time to the power alley in left-center. McCutchen, who had a three-homer night against the Nats in his rookie year of 2009, has an OPS approaching 1.500 vs. Washington and a batting average over .400 at Nationals Park.
Meanwhile, Morton was at his grounder-inducing best. 14 of the 20 outs he got were via the infield grass, including a pair of double plays. He allowed six hits in one of his strongest outings since returning from Tommy John surgery in May.
While they await test results on Grilli, the Pirates will prepare for the second game of the four-game series Tuesday night. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m. from D.C. as Pittsburgh’s rookie righthander Gerrit Cole faces fellow first-year hurler Taylor Jordan.