After playing 10 straight games decided by two runs or fewer, including three straight heartrending losses, a comfortable win was in order for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They got just that Thursday afternoon at PNC Park, as rookie starting pitcher Gerrit Cole recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts in six innings and the Bucco offense produced its biggest output of the month in a 10-1 victory over the pesky San Diego Padres.
The 23-year-old Cole, whose strikeout rate has increased greatly in September, continued that promising trend in his 97-pitch outing. The Padres were befuddled by his accurate high-90s fastball and an assortment of darting off-speed pitches. Cole’s walked three early and allowed a run in the first inning, but he permitted San Diego just one hit in his final five frames.
But Thursday’s story was just as much about the Pirates’ bats, which plated 10 runs for the first time since Aug. 22 at San Francisco. Three massive extra-base hits in the fourth inning got the lively afternoon crowd going, turning a 1-1 game into a five-run Pittsburgh lead.
Pedro Alvarez’ long home run to right-center – his first over the fence in more than three weeks and his 34th of the season – got the rally started, followed by a two-run double by Jose Tabata and a two-run dinger from Neil Walker. Tony Sanchez and Jordy Mercer had consecutive hits to bridge the gap between Alvarez and Tabata.
Walker’s shot chased Padres starter Ian Kennedy, who allowed six runs on eight hits. Despite struggling throughout September, Walker collected four of Pittsburgh’s 14 hits, including three RBIs. Tabata, Justin Morneau, Sanchez and Mercer had two hits each, while Alvarez and McCutchen were walked twice apiece.
The Pirates (88-65) are now 4-4 on their current 11-game homestand, with the Reds coming to town for a critical weekend series. Pittsburgh leads Cincinnati by one game for second place in the National League Central and the top wild-card position.
As they did in each of their four games at PNC Park, the Padres scored first Thursday afternoon, keyed by Chris Denorfia’s double. Tommy Medica singled him in with a two-out blooper, reintroducing the tension that filled the air when San Diego stole a 3-2 win Wednesday night.
Unlike in recent games, though, the Pirates pushed right back. Tabata and Walker reached on singles to lead off the bottom of the first, with the former coming home on McCutchen’s RBI groundout. The five-run outburst in the fourth helped clear the air, especially with Cole cruising, and the Bucs added three in the seventh and one in the eighth against reliever Anthony Bass.
In the seventh, walks to Alvarez and Sanchez preceded back-to-back singles from Mercer and Tabata, the latter of which drove in a pair of runs with the help of third baseman Chase Headley’s throwing error. Walker then lined an opposite-field hit to make it 9-1. The lead grew larger in the eighth when hits from Morneau and Marlon Byrd led to Alvarez’ RBI fielder’s choice.
Tony Watson, Jason Grilli and Stolmy Pimentel cleaned up the final three innings on the mound for the Pirates, who reduced their magic number for making the playoffs to four.
The series with the hard-charging Reds, who just earned a three-game sweep in Houston, starts Friday night at 7:35. Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano will oppose Cincy righty Mat Latos.
Notes: Alvarez snapped an 0-for-18 streak with his fourth-inning homer, which ties him for the NL lead with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt…Walker’s four-hit game was his first since last Aug. 12, also against the Padres…San Diego lost for only the second time in its last 16 games at PNC Park…If the Cardinals lose Thursday evening in Colorado, the Pirates will be one game out of the Central lead…Cole has allowed just three runs in four September starts, giving him an ERA of 1.35 this month. He’s struck out 21 batters in 20 innings over that span…Sanchez put a flourish on a rare start by making a lunging catch of a foul ball in the eighth, tumbling violently into the Padres dugout afterward. He remained in the game.