Friday, July 8, 2011

The Little Engine That Thought It Could

The baseball gods smiled on Pittsburgh; after a gray and wet day, the sun shined down on the Buccos. It's a nicely filled house, with more than a smattering of Chicago fans.

It started off fine for J-Mac; a grounder and K retired the first two Cubbies. Then the hot A-Ram decided to spoil the inning with a long ball, his fifteenth, and it was 1-0 Chicago. Rodrigo Lopez retired the first three Pirates routinely.

In the second, McDonald coaxed a pop, followed by a Marlin Byrd single up the middle. An out later, Darwin Barney walked, but the pitcher went down so there was no more damage.

The Bucs made noise in their half. McCutch walked, but was erased on a 4-6-3 Neil Walker DP. Lyle Overbay singled and Josh Harrison doubled, almost going yard. But it wasn't enough to get Overbay home, and Mike McKenry flew out to right end the frame when Fukudome made a tumbling grab of his bloop. A walk, double and single, but no runs.

The first two Cubs went down quietly in the third. Then Ramirez dropped a single to right and Byrd walked to cause a minor jam. After a Ray Searage visit, J-Mac got Geovany Soto to fly out fairly deep to right. McDonald is already sitting at 64 pitches.

McDonald K'ed to open the Bucco half, followed by an Alex Presley swinging bunt single and Chase d'Arnaud double to right to put runners at second and third; Presley got a bad jump on the hit. Garrett Jones popped out. McCutch got plunked to load the bases. Walker barely beat out an infield knock to score Presley and a hustling d'Arnaud to give the Bucs the lead. Overbay lined a screamer into center, but it was hauled down by Byrd short of the track. After three, it's 2-1 Pittsburgh.

Byrd started off the fourth with a line shot to center for a knock. Alfonso Soriano bounced into a third-to-second force; Harrison's feed to Walker was slightly off-mark. Barney rolled one to short, and the 6-4-3 ended the frame. McDonald needed that inning; he got through it with just eight pitches.

After a Harrison ground out, McKenry caught an elevated heater, but the park held it as Byrd pulled it down in straightaway center. J-Mac bounced out, and after four it was 2-1 Pirates.

The Cubs went down 1-2-3 again, although it took J-Mac eighteen pitches. Presley started off the Bucs with a knock, but d'Arnaud banged into a 6-4-3 and Jones flew out.

McDonald beaned A-Ram, but got the two outs of the sixth when his personal nemesis Byrd doubled up the third base line to put runners at second and third. That brought on Chris Resop. McDonald went 5-2/3 innings, giving up three runs on five hits with two walks, a hit batter and four whiffs, throwing 99 pitches. Another OK but short outing for J-Mac.  Efficiency is not his middle name (actually, Zell is, but you catch our drift.).

On an 0-2 pitch, Soriano got a fastball away and drove it to the Notch for a double; the Cubs were now up 3-2. Bailey followed with a bleeder to third for an infield knock to put runners on the corners with two away, but Resop got Lopez on strikes.

The lead didn't last long for Chicago; McCutch belted his thirteenth of the season, driving a fastball over the center field wall. Walker went down looking and Overbay swinging. Harrison beat out a roller to the left side. McKenry lifted a fly to straight center, and that ended the Bucco sixth with the score 3-3.

Resop stayed on, and Kosuke Fukudome led off with a ground single through the right side. He was erased trying to steal. Good thing, too, as Starlin Castro lined a heater into center for a knock. CR got ahead of Ramirez 1-2 and barely missed with a curve that just broke off the plate. he came back with another, and got a long fly out.

Tony Watson came on to face the red-hot lefty Carlos Pena. Watson won the match up, getting Pena on a bouncer to second to keep the score even.

Xavier Paul, a defensive sub brought in during a two-for-one in the sixth, led off against LHP James Russell. The X-Man dropped one into center to lead of the seventh. Presley bunted him over. One day maybe the Bucs will steal a base in that situation and save an at-bat...nah. At any rate, it brought on Kerry Wood for the Cubs.

He faced d'Arnaud, who lined one to left. Soriano made the grab, and doubled Paul off second thanks to some questionable baserunning. At the end of seven, it's still 3-3, and Jose Veras' turn on the hill.

With one out, he walked Byrd on a 3-2 pitch that could have went either way. Soriano took a 1-2 fastball off the plate and banged it off the Clemente Wall for a double to put runners at second and third with an out. He fell behind Barney 3-1, served up a fastball and with the infield in, Barney rolled it into left to plate Byrd and put runners on the corners. Veras K'ed pinch hitter Blake DeWitt swinging at a curve. He missed badly on the first three pitches to Fukudome and walked him on five tosses to load the bases.

That brought Daniel McCutchen out of the bullpen to face Castro. He went after him aggressively, got ahead 1-2, and after a couple of fouls got a fly to left to keep it a one run game. Sean Marshall toed the rubber for the Cubs, facing pinch hitter Matt Diaz.

Diaz showed some discipline at the plate, and it paid off when he walked on a 3-2 slider; Pedro Ciriaco came in to run for him. Marshall got ahead of McCutch 1-2, and got him on a fly to medium right. Walker also fell behind 1-2, offering at a couple of borderline pitches and finally hitting into a force out; Ciriaco's hard slide into second took out Castro and broke up the DP and would prove to be clutch. Overbay singled Walker to second when he lined the first pitch into left.

That brought on Carlos Marmol to match against Harrison. JH lined a single into center on the first pitch to tie the game as Walker edged out the throw home. McKenry took a strike, fouled off six straight pitches, and found one he liked. He belted it over the left center field wall for his first MLB homer, and suddenly the Bucs were up a bundle, 7-4. McKenry got the joint rockin', and earned a tumultuous curtain call. Earl Weaver did have a point, after all. One hard slide, one three run homer, and hey...

That made it Hanny time. He struck out Ramirez on a slider, had Pena dead to rights on another, except plate ump John Hirschbeck missed the call so he had to settle for a tapper for the out. Hirschbeck must not have been in a hurry to get home; he missed two more pitches against Soto. No diff; he K'ed swinging.  Forget the consecutive save records; from now on, Joel Hanrahan holds them all; 26 without a blown save before the All-Star break and 28 in a row over two seasons.

This team is the little engine that thought it could. And the little guys led the way up the hill - d'Arnaud, Watson, D-Mac, Harrison, Ciriaco, McKenry, with the usual support from McCutch, Walker and Hanrahan. As Dejan Kovacevic tweeted "Might the Pirates be the first-ever first-place team at the break with one All-Star?"

Ryan Dempster and Kevin Correia take the hill tomorrow night.

  • Neil Walker has hit safely in all 16 of his career games against the Cubs; McCutch stretched his 22-game on-base streak against Chicago.
  • The Pirates got their ninth sellout of the season tonight as 37,140 fans attended the game.
  • With their win tonight, the Bucs clinched posting their first winning record going into the All-Star break since 1992.
  • The Cubs now have lost 27 games in which they've had the lead, most in the Major Leagues.
  • Milwaukee rallied in the ninth to beat the Reds 8-7 and stay a game ahead of the Bucs; St. Louis fell into a second place tie with Pittsburgh after losing 7-6 to Arizona.

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