The Pittsburgh Pirates entered Saturday night in Milwaukee needing a win to close within four games of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central.
They got their victory, but that might not have been the most important event of the evening.
Pedro Alvarez, making his second career start at first base, launched a pair of opposite-field home runs, driving in four as the Pirates earned their third consecutive victory, 10-2 over the Brewers at Miller Park.
Alvarez’s first round-tripper of the night, a three-run shot in the top of the fourth inning, transformed a 2-0 Pittsburgh deficit into a 3-2 lead. It was the first blast since July 11 for the 2013 NL home run champion, a span of 26 games and dozens of frustrating at-bats.
Getting Alvarez’s power going would be critical to the Pirates’ playoff pursuit, especially with the pitching staff remaining a work in progress. Pittsburgh has led the major leagues in on-base percentage for several weeks, but their team slugging percentage is 10th.
While “El Toro” has played himself off third base with his erratic throws, the move across the diamond should allow him to get regular plate appearances if he catches fire.
Alvarez added a solo drive in the fifth off Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta, following up an RBI double by Neil Walker and a three-run homer by Russell Martin as part of a five-run outburst. One night after the Pirates (67-62) had uncommon success against Yovani Gallardo, they pummelled another Brewers right-hander for continually falling behind in the count.
Peralta hadn’t allowed a hit until two outs in the fourth, when Martin lofted a double down the left-field line, pushing Walker to third. After that, Alvarez charged after a center-cut fastball and deposited it in the grandstand beyond left-center.
Edinson Volquez, the Pirates’ starting pitcher, had done well to allow just two runs through three innings, but he pulled a bigger escape act to preserve the slim lead in the bottom of the fourth. Following an inexplicable one-out walk to mound opponent Peralta, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy hit back-to-back singles, the latter of which dropped in front of a tentative Travis Snider in right.
Volquez visibly expressed anger at Snider’s decision to play Lucroy’s blooper on a hop, but he channeled that emotion into his pitching, forcing Ryan Braun into an infield pop-up and striking out Aramis Ramirez on a firm inside fastball.
The Pirates delivered the knockout blow moments later, with Martin’s seventh homer of the season sailing into the Brewers’ bullpen after Milwaukee misplayed consecutive grounders by Snider and Andrew McCutchen.
Alvarez’s 17th just added to the fun, making Volquez’s workmanlike effort stand up. Volquez stranded nine runners and ended up allowing 11 hits through 5 2/3 innings, departing after 104 pitches.
Jared Hughes got the final out of the sixth and mowed through the seventh to remove any remaining drama. Walker added RBI singles in the sixth and eighth innings, giving him a team-high three hits. Martin had two hits and two runs scored, as did Snider.
The Pirates trailed the Brewers by seven games Tuesday after a seven-game losing streak, but the margin shrunk for the third time in four days Saturday. The Bucs have also pulled within 1 1/2 games of the Giants for the NL’s second wild card.