In the week since the Pirates plummeted away from their .500 record, the struggle for mediocrity continued as the Pirates traveled to Cincinnati for a showdown with the NL Central leading Reds.
In game one of the series, the Pirates walked into Cincinnati in the midst of a six-game losing streak and looked like they were fading fast. Their starting pitcher for the night, Charlie Morton, had a tough history inside Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park.
The last time Morton pitched there, May 27, 2010, he was pulled after two innings and then immediately taken out of the starting rotation. It was one of the lowest points in his career.
On the other side of the mound, the Reds were rolling with a five game winning streak, atop the NL Central, and Bronson Arroyo was logged for the start. The outcome seemed all too obvious.
Yet, it was that same Charlie Morton who had a debacle almost a year ago to the day who shut down the Reds 5-0. It was that same Charlie Morton who held the Reds to five hits with only two walks in a 103 pitch outing. Morton threw a plethora of sinkers, forcing 14 outs via groundballs and striking out five.
"I think coming back and having two really good games here, you can gauge how far I’ve come," Morton said on Pirates.com. "I look forward to pitching against this team. I respect everyone in this lineup — every single hitter. To pitch well against them, is it slightly more rewarding? Yeah, it is. It is."
Morton improved to 5-1 on the season. A shutout win like that is about the only way to set the tone against a team that is six games ahead of you. The problem for the Pirates is duplicating that performance.
In game two, things didn’t start quite as smoothly.
The game started with pitcher James McDonald having to throw 27 pitches to get out of the first inning. Although he escaped that inning without a run, it hardly looked like McDonald would make it past the fifth. When Reds’ outfielder Jay Bruce crushed the first pitch of the second inning out of the park, McDonald looked doomed.
However, that home run seemed to flip a switch in McDonald. From that point on, McDonald showcased what manager Clint Hurdle described as the best combination of fastball movement and command McDonald has shown all season.
After the Bucs rallied to a 5-2 victory to take both games of the short series, the Pirates headed home to PNC Park for a big home stand against the Detroit Tigers. With a sweep of the division lead, the confidence was building.
In game one against Detroit, in front of full park, the Pirates welcomed home opposing manager Jim Leyland with a dominant 10-1 triumph on the back of a wild sixth inning explosion.
Leyland, who managed the Buccos from 1986 until 1996, still lives in Pittsburgh. On Friday night, I’m sure it felt nothing like home.
After entering the sixth inning tied 1-1, anyone who blinked likely missed the Pirates run away with the game.
After a walk and single put men on the corners, Hurdle saw an opportunity to pull starting pitcher Jeff Karstens for pinch-hitter Matt Diaz. Diaz hit a tough grounder that almost got turned to a double-play, but the throw to first went wide and the Pirates capitalized.
After a walk, the bases were loaded. Back-to-back doubles from Garret Jones and Neil Walker cleared the runners and buried the Tigers.
"We tried to roll the dice and create a big inning," Hurdle said, "and the guys followed through."
In game two, The Pirates used two late three-run innings to win their fourth straight game and ensure an Interleague series win over Detroit. The Tigers’ Max Scherzer took his first loss of the season, while Pittsburgh’s Kevin Correia recorded his first home victory with a 6-2 win.
In the final game of the series, the Pirates offensive game rolled to a grinding halt when Tigers’ starting pitcher Rick Porcello pitched eight innings of shutout ball and allowed only one hit.
Despite the loss, the Pirates still managed to keep in the thick of things, for now, with their four-game win streak. The Bucs sit at 22-24, 4th in the NL and 5.5 games back from the lead.
Tonight, they kick off a home stand against the Atlanta Braves at 7:05 p.m.