Starting pitcher Ivan Nova threw his first complete game since Sept. 21, 2013, and the Pittsburgh Pirates (63-60) ended a four-game losing streak, defeating the Houston Astros (65-61) 7-1 Tuesday night.
Nova dominated the Astros, throwing 25 (of 33) first pitch strikes, getting 13 ground balls and 16 batters out on three pitches or fewer.
“The command of my pitches worked well,” Nova said. “I was working ahead in the count to almost every hitter, and I was getting a lot of quick outs.”
Nova was unable to complete a “Maddux” performance (a complete game shutout under 100 pitches). He met the pitch standard, throwing 98 pitches — 69 of which were for strikes — but he allowed two hard-hit doubles in the ninth, and a run scored to end that the possibility.
“The game played out really well for him,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “He’s done it before. He’s grown and been around the block a few times. We were playing the outs after (he allowed a run), and if he got dinged again we would’ve gotten him out, but I just wanted to give him the chance to go ahead and finish.”
Polanco making strides offensively
Before the team takes the field, Nova always asks right fielder Gregory Polanco to hit him a home run.
Tuesday, Polanco was able to do just that — twice. He hit two home runs in the game.
While the Pirates got six hits to open up the bottom of the first inning, Polanco’s offensive efforts were a highlight.
“I’m getting stronger and my swing is getting better,” he said. “It’s shorter and quicker, and I am more experienced now, too. Now I’m learning the league more every day.”
Astros starting pitcher Joe Musgrove had issues locating his sinkers, and his elevated offerings gave the Pirates a chance to break through. Polanco was the main beneficiary of this, hitting a first-inning opposite field single and, two innings later, an opposite field home run down the left field line.
Later in the game, Polanco got the best of a lefty-on-lefty matchup when he homered to center field off Astros reliever Tony Sipp.
“He’s been building up traction throughout the season,” Hurdle said of Polanco. “To hit a ball left-handed out of this ballpark, you’ve got to have strength, number one. He’s shown the ability to stay on pitches. His batting average against left-handed pitching has grown throughout the season. He’s barreling balls. He likes hitting in the cleanup spot. I don’t know what that adds up to, but he likes it. You just see a nice swing and a battle in the box that has nice strength to it.”
Polanco also enjoyed hitting cleanup, something he said suits his game well.
His growth is a large reason why the Pirates extended their right fielder. Polanco continues to mature and show power that hadn’t been seen much prior to this season.
“It’s one of the best things that happens in the game,” Hurdle said. “It keeps guys like me in the game young. You watch them struggle, fail and battle and work to get better. Then you watch them have success and become a guy where other teams pay attention to where he is batting in the lineup. It’s all fun and he’s such a humble kid that he’s going to continue to work hard to get better — he talks about it all the time.”
Freese heads defensive effort
Perhaps lost in this game was the defensive effort the Pirates showed to not just end the four-game losing streak but to keep Nova’s performance going.
In the third inning, Alex Bregman hit a ground ball that third baseman David Freese cut off but couldn’t quite grab. Freese knocked the ball down, stuck with the play and, combined with a Josh Bell stretch at first base, made a throw just in time to get Bregman out.
“Obviously you’re trying to make the play the first time around,” Freese said. “I was able to knock the ball down and keep it close enough to get ahold of it. Bell stayed on the bag, and it saved a run, so that was good.”
As the possibility of Nova’s “Maddux” effort grew, Freese became involved in another important defensive play.
Nova walked pinch-hitter Evan Gattis, but the pitcher needed just one pitch to get George Springer to ground out to Freese, who started a double play that featured Sean Rodriguez nearly going into a split to record the final out.
“It’s just big for the team and important for Ivan (Nova), especially the way he was going to give him a chance to go the distance,” Freese said. “Later in the game he was working well and saving some pitches.
“You’re trying to make the play, get back in the dugout and grab the sticks as quickly as possible,” Freese said.
This three-game series between the Pirates and the Astros concludes Wednesday when Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole (7-8, 3.30 ERA) faces Houston’s Collin McHugh (7-10, 4.99 ERA).
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