Because of how well they’ve played on the road this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates have earned themselves another home game.
The Pirates guaranteed that 13-year-old PNC Park will host its first postseason contest by slugging their way to an 8-3 victory Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati. By virtue of winning the weekend series against the Reds, Pittsburgh (93-68) ensured it will take the National League’s top wild-card spot and entertain its division rival in Tuesday night’s wild-card game.
The Bucs stroked a season-high six home runs in the volatile three-hour tilt, which featured Neil Walker’s first career two-homer game and single shots from Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Marlon Byrd and Andrew Lambo.
The six round-trippers tied the record for a visiting team at Great American Ball Park and are the most hit by the Pirates since August 2007 at Colorado. Walker’s 16 homers established a new career high and give him seven in September.
The Pirates dropped two of three to the Reds (90-71) last weekend at PNC Park to fall into a tie for the top wild-card berth, but they will finish at least two games ahead after winning four of five on the road since Monday. That stretch included two wins in Chicago and a series-opening 4-1 defeat of the Reds on Friday night.
Saturday had more offensive feel, with Pittsburgh’s Charlie Morton (4 1/3 innings, three runs) and Cincinnati’s Bronson Arroyo (4 2/3 innings, five runs) both stumbling. But the Pirates outhit the powerful Reds to set up a possible series sweep Sunday afternoon.
Just like they did Friday, the Pirates struck for two runs in the third to open the scoring. Unlike Friday, when Byrd dribbled a two-run single through the infield, these runs came via the long ball. After Arroyo retired the first two Bucs to come to the plate, Walker and McCutchen went back-to-back to make it 2-0.
However, Morton couldn’t hold the lead in the bottom of the frame. The Pirates starter hit Shin-Soo Choo with a pitch and walked Joey Votto one out later, setting the scene for Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. The duo delivered consecutive RBI hits, including Bruce’s two-run double to put the Reds ahead for the first time.
But for as shaky as Morton was, Arroyo was even further off. The soft-tossing former Pirate served up a monstrous shot off the bat of Alvarez, his second in as many days, to tie the game in the fourth. Alvarez’ 36th pulled him even with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead and is the most for a Bucco slugger since Jason Bay had the same number in 2007.
The Pirates continued to swing big in the fifth, finally knocking Arroyo out of the game with two more bombs. Walker’s second of the game to deep right-center put Pittsburgh ahead 4-3, then Byrd plated McCutchen with a liner over the wall in left-center, the 24th of the season for the August trade acquisition.
A three-run lead would seem safe in most ballparks, but not in Cincinnati. As if to prove the point, the Reds loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth with one out, inspiring Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to remove Morton in favor of Vin Mazzaro. With the potential tying run on first base, Mazzaro whiffed Zack Cozart and retired Ryan Hanigan on a liner that McCutchen tracked down with his great speed.
Pittsburgh immediately exacerbated the Reds’ latest missed opportunity – they also left the bases loaded in the first inning – by adding on another run. Rookie Andrew Lambo, who hit 32 homers at two minor-league stops this summer, blasted his first big-league dinger against Logan Ondrusek, raising the Pirates’ advantage to 7-3 in the sixth.
Justin Wilson got into a spot of trouble in the bottom of the inning, but the young lefty escaped two walks with a big strikeout of Votto and a groundout from pinch-hitter Chris Heisey.
Clint Barmes added a sacrifice fly in the eighth, but the Pirates bullpen shut the Reds down to make the extra run unnecessary. Scoreless innings from Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Bryan Morris sewed up what should be a wild scene Tuesday night on the North Shore.