Game Three of the NL Divisional Series between the Pirates and Cardinals was the first competitive game of the bunch. It was worth the wait.
The previous two games were defined by the starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright and Gerrit Cole pitched well, A.J. Burnett and Lance Lynn did not. Neither Francisco Liriano nor Joe Kelly can be easily surmised. Both had their moments, but both had to battle throughout. Kelly managed to walk four batters despite an at-times expansive strike zone to his arm side. Liriano walked two of his own, and saw his control evaporate as the game endured.
Pittsburgh struck right away: Andrew McCutchen, whom Clint Hurdle called "the baddest dude in the league" before this series, walked in his first at-bat to give the Pirates a baserunner with two outs. The inning could have ended on the next ball in play, a hopper from Justin Morneau, but the play was slow-developing and Pete Kozma could neither square up with his target nor deliver an accurate throw. The ball out of play and, after a Marlon Byrd single to left field, the Pirates led 2-0.
It stayed this way until the fifth inning, when Liriano was nearing his end. St. Louis' seventh- and eighth-place hitters reached via single and walk, and waited while Kelly tried to get a bunt down three times. He failed on each occasion, which raised more ire in those who wanted him pinch-hit for to begin with. Mike Matheny's decision to stick with Kelly and the bunt didn't end the Cardinals threat, however, in part because of a lucky call. The Cardinals succeeded with a double steal, but replay showed the runner (Jay) was out at third base. Adding salt to the Pirates' wound was how Jay slid past the bag, though third baseman Pedro Alvarez failed to reapply his tag. The next batter was, who else, Carlos Beltran. Naturally, the Cardinals tied the game on a Beltran single.
In the sixth inning, the baddest dude in the league walked again. Kelly coerced a harmless fly out from Morneau's bat, and threw one of his hard, running fastballs inside to Byrd. It was a pitch in and off the plate, the kind that Byrd would be derided for swinging at if he whiffed or fouled it off. But somehow Byrd got solid wood on the ball and laced a double. Fast forward past an intentional walk and a pitching change—with Seth Maness entering—and it was another down-and-in fastball that allowed the Pirates to regain the lead, this time a pitch over the plate that Russell Martin turned into a sacrifice fly.
The seventh inning came and went without a score, but the eighth was a mess. Mark Melancon, the Pirates' set-up man, yielded an inning-opening home run to Beltran that tied the score at three. Melancon narrowly avoided more trouble by covering first on a heads-up play and successfully starting a 1-6-3 double play to end the top half of the inning.
In the bottom half it was that dude again who got things started. McCutchen turned on a 98 mph Carlos Martinez fastball and doubled down the line. But a play later he was tagged out trying to advance to third on a ball hit to his right side. It was the kind of mistake that can haunt a player and a team—just not McCutchen, and not the Pirates, not on this night.
Matheny wisely played the percentages by inserting southpaw Kevin Siegrist against Alvarez with two on. Siegrist had held left-handed batters to a .118/.241/.147 line this season, while Alvarez had batted .180/.252/.286 against lefties this season. It didn't matter on this night in October. Instead Alvarez rapped a ball through the right side of the infield, giving the Pirates the lead. Russell Martin then added another run on a single.
Jason Grilli battled Matt Adams and Jay to start the ninth inning, but got the final two outs on two pitches against Kozma and Daniel Descalso, thus securing the victory and his team's 2-1 edge in the series.
The Pirates will send Charlie Morton to the mound Monday afternoon knowing a win will send them to the NL Championship Series. The Cardinals will counter with rookie Michael Wacha.
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I'm wondering what you thought of Hurdle's decision to pinch hit Jose Tabata for Clint Barmes, thus bringing the weaker defensive shortstop, Jordy Mercer, into the game for the final two innings. It seemed like a foolish move but it ended up not hurting the Bucs.
What really made no sense was pinch running Josh Harrison for Morneau. What are the odds that having a fast runner on 1st with 1 out really matters? Why waste your only decent RH bat and weaken your defense at 1B significantly for that advantage?
But of course it worked, because Harrison scored from second on Alvarez' single when Morneau probably wouldn't have scored. So now Hurdle looks like a genius.
And in the 7th Russell Martin did not have an RBI single off Maness, it was a sacrifice fly.
Bottom line, in this game the Pirates came through when it mattered more often than the Cardinals did. Alvarez has had a great series so far.