The Pittsburgh Pirates entered this week’s three-game series in Texas on a four-game losing streak, putting them in real danger of dropping out of the National League Central race.
They depart the Lone Star State with renewed equilibrium, as they finished an unexpected sweep with a marathon 7-5 win over the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon at the Ballpark in Arlington.
With their eighth sweep of the season, the Pirates (84-61) completed their interleague slate at an unprecedented 15-5; Pittsburgh entered the year as MLB’s worst franchise against the opposite league. The Bucs have won nine straight interleague road games and finished their nine-game trip at 5-4.
The Pirates guaranteed they will enter their upcoming 11-game homestand no more than one game back of the first-place Cardinals. St. Louis hosts Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
Like the Bucs’ first two wins of the series, Wednesday’s was built on high-quality starting pitching, at least for the first five innings. A.J. Burnett retired the first 13 Rangers batters and made into the sixth with a shutout intact. However, Texas battled back for two runs in the sixth and put up three more in the seventh against Burnett and reliever Jeanmar Gomez to raise the stress level in the visitors’ dugout.
The Rangers (81-64) had an MLB-leading 44 comeback wins entering the game, but the Pirates picked up a total of three insurance runs in the seventh and eighth innings to prevent another Texas rally. The last of those critical runs came via Clint Barmes’ solo homer that put Pittsburgh up 7-5.
Bryan Morris, who bailed Gomez out by retiring Alex Rios with two runners on in the seventh, put two runners on with one out in the eighth. With top two relievers Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli unavailable, manager Clint Hurdle had to go to Vin Mazzaro to get out of the jam. Kyle Farnsworth pitched a perfect ninth for his first save as a Pirate.
With the backing of Burnett’s masterful first four frames – the righthander struck out six over that span and seven total – Pittsburgh charged out to a 4-0 lead by the fifth inning. Former Cub Matt Garza got the start for Texas, and he struggled to get the ball over the plate in his four-inning stint.
Neil Walker ripped an RBI single up the middle in the third, then the Bucs took advantage of Garza’s errant pitches in the fourth, generating two runs on two walks, two singles and a fielder’s choice. Garza handed out four free passes in all to blunt the effect of six strikeouts.
After A.J. Pierzynski doubled to break up his perfect game in the fifth, Burnett issued his only two walks of the day to David Murphy and Leonys Martin to start the sixth. Ian Kinsler singled to load the bases, then Elvis Andrus bounced a grounder past shortstop Barmes and into center field to make it a 4-2 game.
The Pirates got both runs back immediately in the seventh, set up by back-to-back hits from Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd. Morneau posted four hits in five at-bats, while Byrd stroked a single and a double on the 96-degree day. Pedro Alvarez, who earlier doubled, drove a deep sacrifice fly to center, then a wild pitch from Neal Cotts pushed Byrd home from third.
Pierzynski kept Burnett on the ropes to start the seventh, slamming a leadoff double. Consecutive singles from Jurickson Profar and Murphy cut the Pirates’ lead to 6-3 and forced Burnett to the bench. Gomez induced Martin to fly out, but Kinsler and Andrus lifted back-to-back RBI singles. Hurdle went to the bullpen again, and Morris worked a full count to Rios before retiring him on a liner to left.
Barmes’ bomb off the hard-throwing Tanner Scheppers in the eighth – his fifth of the year and the first of the series – restored some sanity in Arlington. The shot clanged high off the left-field foul pole to once again put the Bucs up by multiple runs.
First pitch between the Pirates and Cubs is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. Thursday at PNC Park. Bucco lefty Jeff Locke opposes Chris Rusin to start the final homestand of the regular season.