Saul Covers the Bases is a weekly Pirates column by former Chronicle intern and Pitt student Isaac Saul.
The Penguins are done, the Steelers’ first snap is four months away, but I have a feeling the black and gold nation is about to rediscover what it is to enjoy a Pirates baseball season.
After an eighth inning three-run homer by Ryan Doumit in game three of the Astros series, the Pirates took advantage of their second opportunity to hit .500 in the past week. A thrilling series ended with a 5-4 Pirates win after Steve Pearce crossed over home plate. The win helped the Bucs reach 17-17 on the year and take the series from Houson two to one.
If you are hesitant to applaud a team for reaching .500, consider that it has been six years since the Pirates were sitting at .500 at this point in the season. The last time was on June 11, 2005, when they were 30-30.
More important than the number itself is how the Bucs got there. The bullpen has been consistent all year, but its confidence was shaken after a poor performance in game one of the Astros series.
The relievers on the Pirates were certainly not used to giving up a lead; coming into game one of the series against the Astros, the Bucs’ bullpen had an ERA of 2.32, second best in the league only behind the Padres.
After establishing the early lead Friday night, it looked as though the Pirates might jump out to a 1-0 lead in the series in front of a crowd of 12,728. Yet, just when people were starting to assume success, Chris Resop had a rare slip up that led to a one-run lead being flushed in the eighth inning. He had only been scored on once in his last 11 appearances.
Even tougher for the Bucs than missing the opportunity at .500 was what the loss meant to starter Paul Maholm.
After retiring 13 of 14, Maholm faced some trouble when the bases were loaded in the sixth, but an inning-ending double play got him out of trouble. While Maholm could exhale momentarily, I’d be willing to bet his nerves didn’t settle after being pulled.
It seems as though the Bucs’ batters have a secret vendetta against Maholm. In seven starts, the run support has come in at an anorexic total of 11 runs. It doesn’t matter how good you are on the mound, if you’re getting 1.57 runs per game from your offense, wins are going to be hard to come by.
Once Maholm got off the mound, the Pirates’ two runs proved to be short of what they needed and Resop’s blunder led to a 3-2 loss. The .500 mark was gone with the wind once again. Maholm dropped to 1-6 on the season, and heads hung low in the clubhouse.
But after a dominant game two that ended in a 6-1 victory, the Pirates looked like they had shaken off the game one loss and headed into game three with another opportunity at reaching .500. Coming into the game, a few encouraging signs had the Pirates’ confidence back intact.
The defense, which had played 57 consecutive innings without an error, had been stellar. The bullpen has been strong all year — with Resop’s hiccup an exception. The offense was (as always) the one concern, but Pittsburgh led the NL with 25 first-inning runs. The problem, of course, was getting the late game support.
Fortunately for the Pirates, Ryan Doumit made it to the stadium Monday and brought his A-game. After stumbling early it only took one swing for the Pirates to finally hit the .500 landmark.
Down 4-2, the eighth inning found the Pirates in a hitting drought. With the bats quiet, Doumit stepped into the box with the chip on his shoulder that has guided him all year. The catcher, who has been phased out of the lineup after Chris Snyder joined the team last July, has made the most of his limited time at the plate and is currently third on the team in RBIs this season.
With two men on, Doumit blasted a fastball to left field and drove home Neil Walker and Steve Pearce. The shot lifted the Pirates to their third straight series win. Even more, the homer wasn’t new territory for Doumit; last week he hit a grand slam homer against the Padres that helped clinch that series as well.
Now, thanks to Doumit, the Pirates are able to hit the reset button on the entire season. After last night’s win over the Manny Ramirez-less Dodgers, the Pirates are18-17 and climbing the NL Central standings. If the last few weeks are any indication, I’ll go out on a limb, risk the jinx, and say that I’d hardly be surprised if they’re hanging out over .500 for the next few months.