It’s felt that way for quite some time, but it can finally be said. This is the best Pittsburgh Pirates team in 20 years.
With their 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday afternoon at Miller Park, the Pirates reached the 80-win mark for the first time since 1992. Fitting that it happened on Labor Day, as it’s taken the franchise quite a bit of rebuilding work to get to this point.
The game itself had a feel of inevitability through six innings, with starter Charlie Morton limiting the Brewers’ hard-hit balls and the Pirates (80-57) getting good swings against Milwaukee pitcher Tyler Thornburg’s right hand.
Still, Pittsburgh’s lead was only 2-1 entering the seventh. In a building that once saw the Pirates lose 17 straight games under its retractable roof, a positive result certainly wasn’t clinched.
But Morton and Jose Tabata singled with one out in the seventh, and Neil Walker sent a towering three-run homer into the right-center field bleachers off reliever Alfredo Figaro. The bomb was Walker’s 10th of the season, and it significantly eased the pressure on the Pirates pitching and defense.
Morton allowed an unearned run in the bottom of the frame, but he struck out Jonathan Lucroy with a runner on to wrap up seven innings of seven-hit ball. Morton fanned six – including a three-strikeout, 10-pitch sixth – and walked two as he continued his impressive return from Tommy John surgery.
Tony Watson and Mark Melancon worked relatively routine innings to wrap up the Pirates’ fourth win in six games. Paired with the Cardinals’ loss to the Reds on Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh is once again a game ahead of St. Louis for the National League Central lead.
Tabata had a three-hit game out of the leadoff spot, including RBI singles in the second and fifth innings. Both times Tabata drove in Clint Barmes, who had a single and a double on the day. Walker and Andrew McCutchen also enjoyed two-hit afternoons in support of Morton.
The Brewers (59-78) got off to a 1-0 lead in the second when Juan Francisco sliced a double to left field and Logan Schafer bounced a single into center off second baseman Walker’s glove.
Milwaukee’s only other threat came in the seventh. Norichika Aoki and Jean Segura hit back-to-back two-out singles, with Aoki coming around to score when Alvarez couldn’t handle Tabata’s throw from right field, which sailed out of play.
That was the only nervous moment of the final three frames, however. Alvarez and McCutchen stroked two-out doubles in the eighth and ninth, respectively, but the Bucs couldn’t pick up another insurance run.
Pittsburgh can clinch a .500 season Tuesday night at Miller Park, with rookie righty Gerrit Cole scheduled to get the start. Yovanni Gallardo, who helped shut out the Pirates last Thursday at PNC Park, will throw for Milwaukee.