Collier: Karma added to lineup

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You could argue, I suppose, that Pedro Alvarez's backhanded pickup on Buster Posey's difficult two-out hopper in the fourth inning Saturday was superior, but the most difficult play anyone in a white Pirates blouse made before the ninth inning was probably that one by Ashley Davis.


The right field ball girl from Geneva College tracked a hooking line drive off the bat of San Francisco's Melky Cabrera in the first, sprung off her chair next to the seats, and let that wicked foul slap into her glove as easy as pie.

I guess that's what ball girls on first-place teams look like.

Ashley's catch might have had exactly nothing to do with anything, but don't tell me there isn't a distinctive karmic uptick on the North Shore these days.

"Absolutely, I noticed it too," said Fort McKenry, the Pirates catcher whose 400-foot homer contributed significantly to the energy. "The fans are backing us 110 [percent]. They're making it fun to play and in critical situations, it's really important."

The Pirates have won every Saturday home game of this blooming baseball season, so maybe there was nothing terribly remarkable about this little 3-1 stiff-arm of San Francisco.

Except that there most definitely was.

Maybe James McDonald's ninth win lacked the throbbing drama of certain of this club's walk-off victories, and surely the majority of Joel Hanrahan's 23 saves have elevated more heart rates than his latest, but in a couple of ways, Win No. 47 was as impressive as any for its elemental excellence.

Dominant starting pitching, exquisite bullpen shifts, timely hitting and clutch game-saving ninth-inning defense are pretty much a fail-safe formula, and the truly remarkable thing is, the palpable sense that the packed house expected nothing else was alive and walking the Earth.

"We were talking about this the other day," said first baseman Casey McGehee, who responded in just the kind of pressure situation McKenry was talking about. "Earlier in the season, there was a game where it was the ninth inning and we had a chance to walk somebody off, and you could hear a pin drop.

"Today, in the second inning, you could feel the buzz in the crowd. There's a big difference when the fans are expecting good things to happen rather than just waiting to see what is going to happen."

The ninth Pirates sellout of the season was in the seats for a 97-degree first pitch at 4:06, settling down for what might have been the hottest home contest of this century. At 6:45, the temperature was still 90, but none of the assemblage's energy waned, and nobody expected anything in the way of bad news when Hanrahan went to the mound in the ninth with a two-run lead.

McDonald had struck out 10 Giants through seven innings, after all, and Jason Grilli struck out all three he faced in the eighth, meaning the Giants, who were playing their 12th consecutive game against first-place teams, had begun to appear wilted for the wear.

But leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco bunted Hanrahan's first pitch to the left of McKen-ry, who hurried his throw over the head of McGehee, sending Blanco to second with no one out. Ryan Theriot topped the next pitch into a terrible spot, particularly for a defense that had been essentially spectating for most of three hours in stifling heat. Shortstop Clint Barmes started to his right after Theriot's grounder, gloved it, threw on the next step, and still only managed a throw that got to McGehee on a difficult in-between hop.

"That's a fun play to make; you always try to anticipate it because it is so difficult," Barmes said. "I try to practice it every day but it's hard to duplicate. Casey really picked me up on that one; I don't know how he came up with it."

McGehee didn't know either. Not only was the hop long and difficult, but it hit the dirt in front of the first baseman at a spot at which he wouldn't know whether to scoop it or backhand it. McGehee got it with a long scoop.

"You don't really have a chance to think about those," McGehee said. "You just have to see it and go get it."

Or fail to do so.

Barmes made an almost identical play for the second out of the ninth, this time with a near perfect throw, and Garrett Jones ended it with a good running catch toward Ashley Davis in right.

The significance of playing electrifying ninth-inning defense in Saturday's circumstances wasn't lost on the manager, who spent many an hour on the hot carpet of Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium in his player's life.

"Playing defense when our pitchers were playing keepaway all day can sometimes be problematic," Clint Hurdle said after his team went to 40-0 when leading after seven innings, 42-0 when leading after eight. "They made soft contact on both those balls hit to Barmes and it could have been 3-2 or worse in a hurry. Both those balls were extremely well played.

"The whole game was very well played. That's a good ballclub over there."

That might be the nature of the karmic uptick right there. These are the days, it appears, when you can go to PNC Park regularly and see a good team play an even better one, days when it seems there is no hesitancy as to which is which.


Gene Collier:


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