The Pirates trailed 4-0 after 3 1/2 innings in this game. They trailed 6-2 after 5 1/2. They blew a ninth inning lead with two outs and two strikes. They still won. The most surreal part about the whole thing? From what I could tell, there was no one anywhere that’s been watching this team that thought for a second that the Pirates were definitely going to lose. Not after the Astros ran out to their early lead, not after Burnett failed to keep it close, not after Hanrahan and the no-doubles defense blew the lead. This team has been playing so well that winning this crazy, unpredictable, roller coaster of a game felt like fait accompli. Let’s get to the details!
The Pirates were pretty bad early on in this one in the same way that I wrote about after last night’s game. AJ Burnett didn’t have his best stuff and he got hit hard all night long. The Pirates turned two sacrifice bunt attempts into hits and Drew Sutton played some particularly brutal defense in right field. Lucas Harrell absolutely dominated the Pirates on his first pass through the lineup. Finally, Andrew McCutchen had enough. Harrell threw him two balls, then tried to work the outside corner with a 2-0 fastball. ‘Cutch absolutely unloaded on it with a laser beam into the right field grandstand. It was a Vlad Guerrero in his prime swing; just an incredible swing by a right-handed hitter to crush a ball to right with that much power.
It seemed like the comeback had started in earnest at that point, but Burnett and the defense kept stumbling. Chris Resop did a nice job of putting the fire out in the top of the sixth, but the Astros managed to erase McCutchen’s home run. The Pirates didn’t waste any time getting the run back, though. Garrett Jones and Neil Walker and Casey McGehee lead off the bottom of the sixth with singles to plate a run, then Clint Hurdle brought Pedro Alvarez up to pinch hit with Walker and McGehee on and one out. Alvarez quickly fell behind 0-2, then worked the count back full, fouled off two tough pitches, and laced a two-run single right back up the middle. It was a great at-bat in a huge situation and it was exactly the sort of thing that it seemed like Alvarez would never do in April.
Of course, that still left the Pirates down a run. Juan Cruz turned in a great seventh inning — maybe his best outing in a month — and set the table for Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones in the seventh. With one out, McCutchen hit a grounder to shortstop and immediately busted his tail out of the box, beating Jed Lowrie’s throw on what was a tough but makeable play for him. The guy that three innings before crushed an opposite field homer is the guy that immediately recognized a chance to get on base with his speed. There’s nothing Andrew McCutchen can’t do right now. Garrett Jones immediately followed ‘Cutch’s hustle with a bomb down to the Riverwalk in right field. Even through my computer screen, PNC felt like a live wire.
The drama wasn’t quite finished, though. With two outs and two strikes, Jason Castro smoked a ball down the first base line that probably should’ve been an easy play for Garrett Jones, except that Jones started the play with a foot on the chalk, positioned in the always-maddening “no doubles” defense. Drew Sutton took another long route to the ball and made a weak throw home and Lowrie scored easily. It was one of those maddening plays where everything went wrong in such a subtle way that it felt like maybe it was all just bad luck; Hanrahan didn’t have his best stuff tonight and coudn’t finish Castro, but the pitch he ended up hitting was a still a pretty good two-strike slider. Jones was stupidly positioned, but he’s a bad defensive first baseman and his positioning might not have mattered. Sutton took a long time getting the ball back to the plate, but even with Gorkys Hernandez (who was in left for a potentially-concussed Alex Presley) and Sutton flipped it probably would’ve been a heck of a close play at the plate and he might not have gotten Lowrie.
And then none of it mattered at all because Sutton stepped up to the plate with one out in the bottom of the ninth and hit a bomb to dead center. It was the awesome sort of surprise climax that only baseball can give you; everyone knew that Andrew McCutchen was in the on-deck circle, waiting to face the lefty Wesley Wright and everyone was expecting something to happen, but no one was ready for it all as quickly as Sutton made it happen. Suddenly the guy that bounced all around baseball this season and who’s being shoehorned into an outfield spot that he doesn’t belong in because Jose Tabata’s been so disappointing was getting a shaving cream pie smashed in his face by AJ Burnett while a small-but-electric PNC crowd of about 20,000 buzzed like it was October.
This is unbelieveable, this is unexplainable, this is magical. This is Pirate baseball right now in 2012.