On the same day the Penguins’ preseason got underway, No. 66 won the game for Pittsburgh.
No, not that one.
Justin Morneau’s run-scoring single – his first RBI in 14 games as a Pirate – broke an eighth-inning deadlock and provided the difference in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.
Morneau, who recently switched to the same number hockey great Mario Lemieux made famous, pinch-hit for Gaby Sanchez with Andrew McCutchen on second base, Marlon Byrd on first and one out in a 2-2 game. The 32-year-old former Minnesota Twin drove a fastball from Pedro Strop to left field, scoring McCutchen easily and giving Morneau his best moment since arriving via trade Aug. 31.
Morneau stayed in the game to play first base in the ninth, making a nice play to grab third baseman Pedro Alvarez’ high throw and beat Cubs leadoff hitter Junior Lake to the bag for the inning’s first out. Pirates reliever Mark Melancon retired the next two hitters uneventfully to ensure the Bucs (87-62) would stay in a first-place tie with the Cardinals in the National League Central.
Pittsburgh won three out of four from Chicago to start an 11-game homestand which continues Monday against San Diego. The Pirates have won six of seven since a four-game losing streak dropped them out of first temporarily.
Although Morneau came up with the biggest moment of the game, the afternoon belonged to Pirates’ lefty starter Francisco Liriano early on. Liriano no-hit the Cubs (63-86) through six innings, striking out four along the way. However, his bid for his second career no-hitter was hindered by a lack of control – four walks and several extended at-bats pushed his pitch count near 100 for the start of the seventh, with the Pirates leading 2-0.
The drama ended there, as Lake led off with an infield single that shortstop Jordy Mercer dived to grab before having no chance to throw to first. Wellington Castillo then put the outcome in serious doubt with a towering two-run homer to left-center, and a line-drive single by Darnell McDonald brought manager Clint Hurdle out to make a pitching change.
Bryan Morris eluded further danger in the seventh, getting three consecutive outs. After the Bucs failed to score in the bottom half against the Cubs’ Justin Grimm, Kyle Farnsworth got the call to pitch the top of the eighth. The veteran righty responded with a 13-pitch scoreless inning, aided when Anthony Rizzo was doubled off first on a fly ball to right fielder Byrd.
To set up Morneau’s heroics, McCutchen was hit by a pitch from Strop, followed by Byrd’s single to center field. Bryd was thrown out trying to get to third on Morneau’s hit, but it didn’t matter when Melancon kept his remarkable season going with his 16th save.
While Liriano drew most of the attention in the first six innings, Chicago starter Travis Wood went about his business more quietly. The Pirates have been pounding lefties lately, but they could only plate two runs against the Cubs southpaw. The first run arrived because of Jose Tabata’s leadoff triple; he came around on Wood’s wild pitch one batter later.
Pittsburgh stranded four runners in scoring position in the first three innings, but rookie catcher Tony Sanchez alleviated some of that pain with a solo homer to right-center. The opposite-field shot was Sanchez’ second of the year and the Pirates’ sixth in the last three games.
The Bucs will go for three wins in a row Monday night at 7:05 when the Padres come to town for a four-game series. A.J. Burnett gets the call in the opener, while Andrew Cashner will toe the rubber for San Diego.