Collier: Nothing comes easy with these Pirates

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CINCINNATI -- Sunday came that rare occasion when the hot serving of Mac & Cheese that so often accompanies a Pirates victory just wasn't tasting all that great, meaning bullpen hammers Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli had to do a lot more to protect a two-run lead than just flash their impeccable credentials and nasty repertoires.

Melancon walked to the mound for the eighth inning having not allowed a run since June 4, an immaculate streak that covered 15 innings -- longest in the National League. But he put the tying runs on base with only six pitches, and Grilli put the tying run on in the ninth after only five.

But if you thought anything was going to be easy on a day the top four hitters in the Pirates lineup went 0 for 17, when cleanup hitter Pedro Alvarez finished the weekend 0 for Ohio, when the lineup as a whole -- or is it hole? -- struck out 16 times, when the Reds managed one hit through seven innings against four Pirates pitchers and still somehow set themselves up perfectly to complete a three-game sweep, then you haven't been watching enough Pirates baseball.

Nothing's easy with these guys.

Even when they're getting lights-out pitching, every win has the feel of a three-hour tooth pull.

What they needed for Sunday's 3-2 victory, only their fourth in the past 11 games, was what manager Clint Hurdle correctly called "as good a play as we've made all year in a tight spot."

The spot formed quickly in that eighth, when Melancon loaded the bases by sandwiching two walks around Shin-Soo Choo's single, which brought no-less-menacing an hombre than Joey Votto to the plate and nearly 41,000 eyewitnesses to their feet.

"He's an incredible hitter," Melancon said. "I have faced him quite a few times, so I feel like he knows me, I know him; the most important thing is executing your pitches. Just concentrate on executing."

Melancon started the four-time All-Star and former MVP with a fastball that Votto fouled away. Then came the cutter, and Votto swatted it to the right of Gaby Sanchez at first.

"He's a great hitter so you've gotta be ready to make a play -- either knocking it down, do something!" Sanchez said. "I was able to get there and get the lead runner, which was my intention."

Sanchez backhanded the ball as he strode into the hole, got it to Clint Barmes at second to force out Chris Heisey and watched Barmes rifle it to Melancon covering first for a 3-6-1 double play that knocked the Red legs out from under a looming game-winning rally.

"I mean, Melancon," marveled Barmes, "he was at the bag and stretching for me. That was a monster play, for him to be in the game that much, and to be able to get there in that situation; that was huge."

Sometimes, it's difficult to execute routine things when your eighth inning isn't progressing in the manner to which you're accustomed, but the truth is, Melancon didn't even think he was struggling.

After he got Brandon Phillips to bounce an 0-1 pitch to Barmes to end the inning, Melancon walked off with all his confidence intact.

"I was right around the black basically on all my pitches," he said. "A couple were down, but for the most part, I was really close to executing all my pitches right where I wanted them to be."

He was happy enough about that 0-1 pitch to Votto, but not real happy with where Votto hit it. This was no room-service double-play ball bouncing past Melancon to his left. This was more like a potential flat-tire-in-the-drive-thru kind of double-play ball, of which little good can come.

"I didn't know if we'd have enough time," Melancon said of that 3-6-1 rally slayer. "When I saw Barmey throw the ball I was a little bit shocked, but then we had plenty of time, and that's a big two outs in that situation."

And still, two the hard way didn't solve everything.

Pinch-hitter Derrick Robinson, whom Melancon walked on four pitches to start the inning, scored on the play to cut the Pirates' little lead in half, meaning that when Todd Frazier slapped a flat Grilli-cheese slider to right for a one-out single in the ninth, the Reds were primed to send the game into extra innings.

Grilli went to 3-2 on Zack Cozart, who lashed another suspect slider to left but it hung in the air long enough for Starling Marte to grab it. Devin Mesoraco popped up to Barmes to end it.

Pirates relievers now have an 0.69 ERA the past nine games, and All-Star Jeff Locke (9-2) hasn't lost on the road since April 7.

You'd think in such circumstances that winning should not be this difficult.

You'd be correct.

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Gene Collier: First Published July 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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