Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson gave Starling Marte some last minute advice as the right-handed cleanup hitter prepared to face J.J. Hoover with the bases loaded. It was a simple message, really: Keep your foot down.
For three games and 7.2 innings on Friday night (the fourth game of the season), the Pirates hadn’t connected on a home run, but all of that was about to change.
Hoover made a mistake and threw a pitch right down the middle of the plate, and Marte made him pay. The grand slam allowed the Pirates to defeat the Cincinnati Reds, 6-5.
“We were going to hit a ball like that sooner or later,” manager Clint Hurdle told reporters after the game. “It was probably one of his best hits at this ballpark.”
Ryan Vogelsong (1-0) got the win after pitching two innings, and Hoover (0-1) suffered the loss.
Miscues plague both teams
The game began with a steady downpour and ended with five errors—not to mention the six Reds batters who were walked and the three who were hit.
Both Francisco Cervelli and John Jaso had nights to forget on the offensive end, leaving five and four runners on base, respectively. Josh Harrison also stranded five runners, but he made up for it with several heads-up plays on defense.
In total, the Pirates stranded 20 on base. However, the Reds weren’t much better, leaving 14 men of their own on base.
A lot of the Reds’ struggle to score was because Francisco Liriano battled to minimize the damage against him.
Liriano’s first test came in the third inning when he loaded the bases with a single and two walks. Brandon Phillips, who hit a home run earlier in the game, hit a sacrifice fly, but Devin Mesoraco hit into a double play to end the rally.
Again, an inning later, the bases were loaded with one out, but Zach Cozart hit into a double play.
While Liriano limited the Reds to three runs, he needed a lot of pitches to get through five innings and departed the game after 90 pitches, 47 of which were strikes.
Cincinnati reliever Alfredo Simon had more success against the Pirates, though the bottom two hitters in the lineup—Jordy Mercer and Liriano, who is now 11-for-22 in his last 33 at the plate—each had multiple hits against him. Still, Simon kept the rest of the order in check.
The difference in this game came in the eighth inning, which started with former Pirate Ross Ohlendorf on the mound.
Ohlendorf quickly got the first two batters out, but then, on a 2-2 pitch, he hit Jaso. Ohlendorf then walked Andrew McCutchen. David Freese almost brought a run home, but the second baseman, Phillips, made a diving stop to prevent a run. Phillips quickly attempted a no-look throw to second base, respecting McCutchen’s speed, but it was off-the-mark.
With the bases loaded, Reds manager Bryan Price brought Hoover in to face Marte and, after a frustrating night for both teams, a grand slam brought smiles across the Pirates dugout.
After the game, Hurdle said both Tony Watson and Mark Melancon were on track to pitch 162 games because of two well-timed off days during the first week of play. In Friday’s game, Melancon pitched the ninth inning and earned his second save of the season.
Neftali Feliz came in for the eighth inning and threw a rather routine inning. Feliz has earned Hurdle’s trust, and because Feliz has a history of being a closer, the Pirates manager has faith to send him out with a one-run lead. Feliz struck out two batters in his appearance and, of his 19 total pitches, 13 were strikes.
Not only was Feliz able to give Watson a night off, this one-two punch of Feliz and Melancon is something that might become a more common occurrence. Hurdle has shown a willingness to have Watson pitch in the seventh inning because of Feliz and what he brings to the team.
Time, of course, will tell whether this will continue, but Feliz has been doing his part.
These two teams battle in the second of a three-game series. Gerrit Cole (in his 2016 debut) will face Raisel Iglesias (0-0, 3.00 ERA). It’s safe to say the Reds haven’t been Cole’s favorite team to face as he is 0-4 with a 5.23 ERA in six career starts against them. Reds hitters are batting .311 against him.
Photo credit: John Minchillo/AP Photo