High drama continues at PNC Park

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The totality of the results might not be to the full liking of the newly formulated Pirates Nation, but few could quibble about the level of drama that the first two games of the series between the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds has produced.

If the finale this afternoon at PNC Park comes close to matching the first two games, this truly will be baseball to be remembered.

The Pirates stumbled badly Friday night, blowing a three-run lead and losing in extra innings, but rallied Saturday to take the lead and then clung to it superbly - but most certainly differently - to win, 4-2. All this was shrouded in a minor bean-ball war and the inflammatory language that is part of such shenanigans.

With seven games to go, this is the situation: St. Louis leads the NL Central by two games over the Pirates; the Pirates lead the Reds by one game. Any of the three teams could win it but, for sure, St. Louis has the edge.

The Pirates go into this final week with a look no one could have expected. Jose Tabata, a man for whom the fan base had little use, and understandably so, has become not only a lynchpin in the offense, but has supplanted, perhaps permanently for this season, Starling Marte in left field and at the top of the lineup. Tabata, it seems, is doing almost exactly what Marte was doing and Marte is doing an imitation of the old Tabata.

In 62 September at bats, this is Tabata's line: .323/.354/.500 - .854. He leads the team in RBIs with 11 and is second in home runs with two. Only Andrew McCutchen has performed better in this most crucial of months.

It's a stunning surprise and much needed because at this point, after going 1-for-8 since coming off the DL, no one has any certainty as to whether Marte's injured hand is good enough to maintain the starting job or even to make the postseason roster.

Jose Tabata to the rescue! Who knew?

No one would pose such a question to the scenario that occurred last night: Jason Grilli to the rescue.

The Pirates once almost-untouchable and always unflappable closer was back in his familiar role last night - pitching a 1-2-3 ninth inning and possibly laying claim to his old job. Grilli, in his first save situation since July, gave up a leadoff single to Ryan Ludwick but got the dangerous Jay Bruce to hit into a double play and then ended it on a Zack Cozart ground out.

It's too early to declare Grilli back, but there's a degree of comfort in knowing he might.

Which brings us to today and the start for the Pirates of Jeff Locke, who has been, shall we say, not up to the challenge in recent weeks (months).

There has been many calls to replace Locke but the Pirates have stuck by him in the belief he is their best option. My choice would be Jeanmar Gomez, and even if it's three or four innings. That would possibly be enough given the current depth of the Pirates bullpen. But the call is the once-formidable Locke.

He was an All-Star in the first half, he is nothing approaching that in the second. These first-half/second-half splits say it all: ERA -- 2.15/5.45; BAA - .202/.305. He has pitched somewhat better in his past three starts - 3.71 ERA - but nothing close to the first-half Locke.

It might be an afternoon where the Pirates bats and the Pirates bullpen will be required to excel. And that could well happen. It's September, it's pennant-race baseball and, as we've seen in the past two games, almost all things are possible.



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