The Pirates have certainly been playing a little bit better of late (they’re now 10-8 in their last 18 games, which is a pace that will eventually get them back to around .500, but not much of anywhere else), but a lot of the wins have been these crazy, frantic affairs where the starters melt down or the bullpen melts down and the Pirates need a clutch hit or a huge rally or something ridiculous to win. What’s been missing, especially in the last week or so, is a win where the Pirates get out in front and mostly stay there, where they get a solid start and then the bullpen comes in and holds down a modest lead without much drama. Pretty much the exact sort of win that the Pirates had (seemingly) about 80 of last year.
That’s pretty much what happened last night. Edinson Volquez turned in one of the better starts of his Pirate career, right at a juncture that he needed to come up with a big one. When I was talking about his time running out in the rotation without a solid performance before the game, some people were asking why he deserved even one more start. This start was the reason; as bad as he was in the four starts before it, it’s hard to deny that something is different about Volquez this year. He’s throwing a ton of strikes, he’s challenging hitters, and he occasionally puts together really strong outings. I have no idea if he’s capable of actually stringing a run of good starts together, but that possibility doesn’t seem as ludicrous to me now as it did in March.
Much of this game turned on two defensive plays. With Volquez already approaching 90 pitches and the middle of the Nationals’ order up, Josh Harrison made a full-out diving catch to rob Wilson Ramos of a hit in the sixth inning, and Volquez responded with half of his four strikes to close out the inning. Instead of hitting a wall, Harrison’s catch enabled Volquez to get through the sixth with no trouble at all. In the ninth, with two runners on and two outs, Andrew McCutchen made a sliding catch of a sinking Anthony Rendon line drive that probably would’ve resulted in a tie game, had he missed the ball. The two runners were on base because Mark Melancon walked two batters again, which is troubling, but I suppose for now we can shrug off all the walks from him and Watson last night in favor of the win. Melancon will almost certainly lose the closing job back to Jason Grilli tonight or tomorrow, which is something that has its own issues that will have to be sorted out in the near future.
The Pirates didn’t get a whole ton of offense last night, so it was good that the pitching staff and defense stepped up. Their first run actually came after Blake Treinen retired the game’s first eight batters, then walked Edinson Volquez, gave up a single to Josh Harrison, walked Neil Walker, and hit Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen and Harrison added RBI singles later in the game.
I mentioned the Pirates’ 10-8 record in their last 18 earlier in the post, and while that’s not a staggering accomplishment it is at least a righting of the ship from their 10-18 start. The 18th loss was the terrible nightcap to the Baltimore double-header, which left the Pirates 9 1/2 games behind the Brewers. They’re only 20-26 now and they’re still 7 games back, but that’s certainly better than where things were a few weeks ago.