Ron Cook: Peculiar Pirates lineup comes to the rescue

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It was in November, after the Steelers beat the New York Giants, that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin apologized to his players for bailing him out after a failed fake field-goal try with kicker Shaun Suisham.

"They overcome bad coaching sometimes," Tomlin said.

There was no similar apology Saturday night from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, but I'm thinking his players did a really nice job not just rescuing him, but making him look brilliant in another impressive win against the Atlanta Braves, this one, 3-1, at PNC Park. That made it two wins in three games against the powerful Braves and six wins in eight games on a homestand that also brought the no-slouch Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals to town. It will be a superb homestand no matter what happens today against the Braves. It will be terrific if the Pirates can get one more win.

It was a curious lineup that Hurdle sent out against Braves left-hander Paul Maholm, who came in as the only starting pitcher in the major leagues not to have given up a run this season, having thrown 201/3 scoreless innings. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez didn't start despite hitting home runs in each of the previous two games. First baseman Garrett Jones sat despite a seven-game hitting streak in which he hit .409. Right fielder Travis Snider sat despite a seven-game hitting streak in which he hit .409.

Jose Tabata started in right field despite a .217 average. "He's swinging the bat way better than that," Hurdle said before the game. Gaby Sanchez started at first base despite a .174 average. "I like what he's been doing," Hurdle said.

The bottom-line strategy?

"I want to throw right-handed hitters out there -- all of 'em," Hurdle said.

The move that was most puzzling was sitting Alvarez. It's not just that Alvarez, finally, is starting to hit. He also had RBI-hits Tuesday and Wednesday nights against the Cardinals, although the one Tuesday night didn't count because the game was rained out after two innings. The only way Alvarez is going to start hitting left-handers is if he keeps getting the chance to play against them. Hurdle acknowledged that last week. He said he decided not to start Alvarez against Maholm because it was a good time to give him break in the Pirates' current 20-games-in-20-days streak. I don't know, I thought Alvarez looked pretty fresh the past few days.

The Alvarez decision seemed further complicated because Hurdle played catcher Russell Martin at third base even though Martin has hardly played there during his career. "I've seen him play third base with my own eyes," Hurdle said. "He can play third."

What made that move even more debatable was that James McDonald was the starting pitcher Saturday night. Monday night, when McDonald started against the Cardinals, Hurdle said it was important to catch Martin instead of Michael McKenry, who had hit two home runs a day earlier against the Reds. He wanted Martin to handle McDonald. Well, you could argue McDonald's start against the Braves was even more important after he failed badly against the Cardinals. It's not a reach to say he was pitching for his spot in the rotation.

And Martin was playing third base?

As it turned out, Martin had only one chance at third and recorded the out. McKenry, meanwhile, did a wonderful job with McDonald, who was outstanding against the Braves. McDonald allowed just one run and two hits in six innings, although he walked four and hit a batter. He struck out nine.

"That's the guy we're looking for," Hurdle said afterward. "That's the guy our guys like to play behind. A big outing for him on a night we needed it."

The lineup also came through for Hurdle. It took a while to get going -- Maholm had a no-hitter until center fielder Andrew McCutchen doubled with two outs in the fourth inning -- but put up three runs in the sixth inning to wipe out a 1-0 deficit. The big hits were an RBI double by McCutchen and a two-run home run by Sanchez.

Talk about coming through for the manager.

The runs were all Hurdle and the Pirates needed. He had his bullpen ready to go and Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli didn't disappoint. Each pitched a scoreless inning and Grilli struck out the side in the ninth for his sixth save in six chances. The only worry with Grilli these days is that he doesn't blow out his arm when he does his fist pump after the final out. You might say he is into it.

So was Hurdle after this win. And why not? The Pirates beat the hottest team in baseball for the second consecutive night. They beat a tough left-hander despite coming in hitting .158 against left-handers.

"I think [the sixth inning] showed we weren't going to get away from our game plan," Hurdle said. "That inning, we looked for pitches up and over the plate. The ones we got, we hammered 'em."

You know what it all meant, right?

No apology was necessary.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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