Before we get to the game’s pivotal moment, I should praise the work of Clint Hurdle to counteract my usual desire to bury him.
Neil Walker hit 9-for-21 on the Pirates’ five-game road trip. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Eyebrows were raised when Hurdle removed Jeanmar Gomez with 73 pitches. Gomez had retired the last eight Detroit Tigers hitters, and looked primed to keep working through the bottom of the order. But Hurdle knew Gomez’s season high is 79 pitches, and opted for Justin Wilson, whose only hiccups in two innings were a Prince Fielder single and a Victor Martinez fly ball that Comerica Park would not let go over its wall.
Pulling Pedro Alvarez to use Josh Harrison as a pinch runner was curious in a scoreless game, one in which Alvarez’s lineup spot could have come up again, but I won’t burn Hurdle for giving Harrison a chance for redemption. He dropped in Jordy Mercer for Clint Barmes with a chance to go ahead in the 10th, but Mercer’s fly ball did not drop. Using Mark Melancon in the 10th inning was genius, then Jason Grilli was the obvious choice in the 11th inning once the Pirates had the lead.
Well done, Clint Hurdle. Now let’s get to Neil Walker’s home run.
It wasn’t quite certain why Ortega was still on the mound after nearly giving up the go-ahead run the previous innings, but there he was. The Pirates had swung at fewer than 20% of all first pitches before Neil Walker stepped in against Jose Ortega in the 11th inning. Walker came up to the plate swinging in his previous at-bat, and he did so again. Ortega left a breaking ball around the middle of the plate, Walker was ready for it, turned on the pitch…
Gone. Really gone. That was a no-doubt home run from Neil Walker to break the scoreless game and put the Pirates ahead. The homer capped a three-hit night for Walker, the only player in the game with more than one hit. After all, no runner even got to second base until Pedro Alvarez did so in the 8th inning. Walker is finally getting his swing right at the plate, up to a .778 season OPS after owning a dreadful .632 OPS as recently as nine days ago. That is partly the variance of small-sample OPS and partly a sign that the Pirates’ second baseman is swinging out of his funk.
Gomez Strong Again
I will admit that matching up against the Detroit Tigers made me quite nervous for Jeanmar Gomez. All of his successful May starts were versus below-average offenses, not versus one of the AL Central teams that he had struggled to a 5.87 ERA against in his young career.
But he continued to look like far more than a fill-in No. 5 pitcher, efficiently carving his way through the top-level Tigers lineup and allowing only four baserunners over seven innings. Much of the success was built on getting outs on contact once again, which makes me weary for Gomez’s future, but he kept a loud Tigers’ lineup quiet and reduced his season ERA to 2.30. If the Pirates’ plan is to replace him in the rotation when Charlie Morton is ready, well, that plan is looking a little more difficult to implement.
We can’t end this recap without acknowledging how amazing Detroit’s Rick Porcello was. He set a career high by striking out 11 hitters, one day after Justin Verlander recorded 13 K’s. Porcello’s dominance is not completely unexpected. He is a young, former top high school arm with a good sinker and off-speed pitches whose ERA has always been inflated by the poor defense behind him. Seven of his strikeouts came via fastball, and he made a couple of the Pirates hitters look a little foolish at the plate. Porcello is only 24 years old. He’s more than your typical No. 5 starter.
A Grilli, A Grilli, A Grilli, A Grilli…
Speaking of making hitters look foolish: Jason Grilli did just that to Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, striking out all three for his 21st save. Grilli needed only four pitches to disarm Cabrera (who has been surprisingly punchless this series), but battled with Fielder for nine pitches before relying on the ol’ Grilled Cheese to seal the deal.
Wednesday’s win was the Pirates’ eighth shutout of the season, more than the team had in any full season from 2007 through 2010, and we are not through May. If you are looking at the record books, the 1992 Pirates pitched 20 shutouts for the most by any Pittsburgh team over the last century. But even if this team gets to 16 shutouts, that would be the franchise’s second-most since the mound was lowered in 1969. The Pirates now have the second-lowest ERA in baseball (behind the Cardinals, of course) and are holding opponents to an MLB-best .222 batting average. This team is preventing runs.