PITTSBURGH — The traditional power positions of the corner outfield and first base haven’t provided the output for the Pirates that most would expect from a contender.
But the Pirates are still in the race for the National League Central title and the wildcard. Some of that has been because centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (17 home runs) and second baseman Neil Walker (14) have made up some of the gap. Pedro Alvarez has hit 15 home runs at the traditional power spot of third base.
Much of the time, though, the Pirates move around the bases one at a time.
“The 90s are something we talk about,” said manager Clint Hurdle, referring to the distance between bases. “The free 90s are something we talk about, but they’re certainly not easy.”
Three times Sunday afternoon, the Pirates turned one of those “free” 90s into runs and, in a 5-3 win over the Rockies, three runs spells the difference between winning and losing.
Down 3-0 in the third, Gaby Sanchez led off with a single and Neil Walker lined a single to right. Colorado right fielder Carlos Gonzalez threw to third, Walker moved up to second and scored on Jordy Mercer’s single.
“I knew he was going to third,” Walker said. “If he goes to second, I’m out. It’s aggressive and we’ve been heckled about that. We can look stupid at times but we’re aggressive.”
They didn’t look stupid on Sunday.
In the sixth inning, Mercer walked, stole second and scored on Chris Stewart’s double to tie the game at 3-3.
In the seventh, Josh Harrison walked, stole second and scored on McCutchen’s single on the next pitch to give the Pirates the lead. It was only the second stolen base both Mercer and Harrison. It’s not that the Pirates are taking an exceptional number of chances, they’re just taking advantages of opportunities.
“We know if we get a chance to get to second, we have a chance to score,” Harrison said. “It adds pressure on the pitcher.”
Walker later added a solo home run to make the final score 5-3, but that was insurance. The work on the basepaths laid the groundwork and put the club right in the thick of the pennant race.
“We’ve been playing our best baseball since May,” Hurdle said. “We’ve gotten incrementally better.
“You need good effort from your starters and your bullpen but it’s our offense that has improved more collectively.
“Our on base percentage is at an all-time high and we’ve been working the counts, getting starters out earlier and we’ve been getting to the bullpen before they reach that bridge to the closer.”
So far that has worked. The Pirates have won 42 of 70 games since May 2, a winning percentage of .600. Their current record of 52-46 matches their high water mark of the season at six games over .500.
“We feel good about this team,” said general manager Neal Huntington when asked about trading deadline issues.
“We felt less comfortable last year with a better record.”