For the second time in three days, the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves in desperate need of amnesia. For the second time in three days, they achieved just that.
Two days after the Pirates neutralized a potentially devastating defeat with a blowout win, they put memories of Friday night’s blown lead in the past by grinding out a 4-2 decision over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday night at PNC Park.
Not only did the rebound cleanse the Pirates’ palate, it also reestablished their one-game lead over the Reds for the National League’s top wild-card spot with seven games to play. Pittsburgh (89-66) remained two games behind St. Louis for the Central lead, while Cincinnati (88-67) fell three off the Cardinals’ pace.
The Bucs’ bedrock Saturday night was starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, who struck out 12 over seven mostly-dominant innings, becoming the first righthander in the history of the Pirates to fan 200 batters in a season. Burnett shifted into cruise control after allowing two runs through the first two frames.
Behind 2-0 in the second, the Pirates’ bats got going against nemesis Homer Bailey, who no-hit the Bucs last September at PNC Park. After Pedro Alvarez reached on an error by first baseman Joey Votto, Russell Martin slugged an off-speed pitch into the left-field stands for his 15th home run of the season.
The score remained tied until the sixth, when Andrew McCutchen walked after one out and sprinted around to third on Bailey’s errant pickoff throw. Marlon Byrd drove him in with a deep sacrifice fly to right-center, then Alvarez lined a sharp RBI single to left to greet Reds reliever – and longtime former Pirate – Zach Duke.
Burnett, who permitted just four hits and three walks, finished his night in the seventh with a pair of strikeouts, pumping his fist as he left the mound to an ovation from the sellout crowd. But as Friday night revealed, the game was far from over.
Fortunately for the Pirates, recent history would not repeat. Lefthander Justin Wilson, making his first appearance in a week, induced NL MVP candidate Votto to ground into a double play to end the top of the eighth, setting the scene for Jason Grilli to take the mound in the ninth.
Grilli’s first save opportunity since late July went about as well as could be hoped, as he erased Ryan Ludwick’s leadoff single with a double play ball off the bat of slugger Jay Bruce. That brought up Zach Cozart, who homered in the second off Burnett. He would do no such thing in the ninth, grounding out harmlessly to shortstop Clint Barmes to end the game.
The finish wasn’t only poetic for Grilli, but also for Pirates fans who watched rookie shortstop Jordy Mercer throw away a routine third out in Friday’s ninth inning. That blunder set the scene for Cincinnati’s three-run rally against Marc Melancon in a game the Reds won 6-5.
Jeff Locke opposes Bronson Arroyo in the finale of this high-leverage series. First pitch is set for 1:35 p.m. at PNC Park.