Two steps forward, one giant step backward.
That’s where the Pirates have gone since last week — a week in which they were 4.5 games back from the NL Central lead and heading into a series with the miserable Orioles.
After dispatching Baltimore by winning the latter two games of the series, the Bucs turned their attention towards one of their toughest tests yet: the Boston Red Sox.
The Sox, who are always an American League power house, now sit a half game behind the AL East lead with a 45-32 record. However, it took Boston everything they had and three tries to knock off the Bucs on their home turf — a bragging right Pittsburgh should be proud to have.
In game one, the third largest crowd in PNC Park history watched as manager Clint Hurdle took one of the most important walks to the mound of the season. The Bucs were up 3-1 in the eighth inning, the tying run was on second, and the batter was one of the most dominant sluggers of this baseball era: David Ortiz.
On the mound was pitcher Jose Veras, with whom Hurdle decided to stick with while the game was coming down to its final pitches. Veras didn’t disappoint, forcing Ortiz into a ground out and passing the ball to Joel Hanrahan who was perfect again as the Bucs went over .500 with a 3-1 victory.
In game two, the Pirates stepped out of the clubhouse in front of the largest crowd in PNC Park history, with 39,438 fans in attendance. After falling behind early, it was Lyle Overbay who played the hero role on his way to hitting a three-run homer in the fourth inning that put the Pirates ahead, a lead they would hold onto for the game’s entirety.
The win had a few notable outcomes for the Pirates: The game one win was their 14th first-game win of a series, and they have won 13 of those 14 series. It brought them to the peak of a four-game winning streak, tying their longest streak of the year. They stepped two games over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 1999.
Individually, players like Joel Hanrahan continue to shine. Hanrahan now has 22 saves in 22 chances and ranks third in the NL in saves. Andrew McCutchen has now reached base safely in each of his last 16 games at home.
Perhaps most intriguing though, was that the game two win set up a game three with serious implications. If the Bucs were to win, it would be the first time the Pirates swept an American League team since 2001.
It didn’t take long for things to get ugly.
The loss of the game was unfortunate, but the hit the Pirates took in the first inning when outfielder Jose Tabata was carted off the field might have a debilitating outcome on the Bucs lineup.
Tabata, who has been diagnosed with a quad strain, hit the ground after a touching first base on a bunt single. He didn’t get up for several minutes, and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. Batting third in the lineup, Tabata has 15 RBIs this season to go along with a .351 on base percentage and .265 batting average.
With Tabata in the locker room, playing in front of what is now the biggest crowd in PNC Park history with 39,511 fans in attendance, the black and yellow defense slumbered.
Committing a season-high four errors, the Bucs defense allowed three unearned runs on their way to a 4-2 loss. Even more irking for Pirates fans was watching the Sox score their final three runs in innings where they didn’t have a single hit.
One bright side of game three was that it took the series attendance to a 118, 324 total, the largest for any series in Pirates history.
With the loss, the Pirates settled in at 39-38 heading into a series with the Blue Jays, who sit at 39-40 and fight the same battle with mediocrity that Pittsburgh does each and every week. It’ll be another do or die week for the Bucs, who are running out of time to make their move on the NL Central lead.