The moment the ball boomed off Nate McLouth's bat, the Pirates and everyone jammed into PNC Park last night probably knew they had witnessed something special.
What could be sweeter?
The score was tied, seventh inning, the golden-boy All-Star at the plate, and his mammoth drive cleared the Clemente Wall and, ultimately, brought a 4-2 toppling of the hallowed New York Yankees, all before a hanging-over-the-railings crowd of 39,081.
From the ball taking flight to its final destination, as McLouth would describe later, "It was the loudest I've ever heard it in Pittsburgh."
Paul Maholm pitched eight exemplary innings, Damaso Marte picked up the save, and Jose Bautista made two fine defensive picks for what manager John Russell said "ranked right up there" with the Pirates' soundest games under his watch.
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (4-5, 4.23) vs. RHP Kyle Lohse (10-2, 3.61).
- Key matchup: Might be a good night to get Chris Gomez in the lineup: He is 5 for 11 with three doubles and two walks vs. Lohse.
- Of note: How is St. Louis in contention? Simple: The starting rotation, despite missing Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Adam Wainright most of the summer, leads the National League in winning percentage at 39-21 and has a 4.08 ERA that ranks fifth.
Still, it is the McLouth moment that will be remembered from this rare gem on the North Shore, and there was even more to it than met the eye ...
Start with Jack Wilson, as all of the Pirates' offense did: With the score 2-2 after New York had just tied in the top of the seventh, he drew a five-pitch walk off Jose Veras to open the bottom half.
McLouth was next, and Russell, looking to advance Wilson, sent out the bunt sign. McLouth tried one, but fouled off a fastball.
Russell took off the sign.
"We knew he was going to hit a home run," Russell said with a grin. "Actually, we thought we had some speed with Jack and, after timing the pitcher, didn't want to take the bat out of Nate's hands."
Some might be reminded of a more prominent bunt-turned-home run in franchise lore: Bob Robertson famously missed Danny Murtaugh's bunt sign in Game 3 of the 1971 World Series before swinging away to belt one out. That, too, came in the seventh inning.
But back to the present: First-base coach Lou Frazier was timing Veras to the plate and signaled that to the dugout, so Russell switched to a hit-and-run. With Veras' next fastball, Wilson broke for second.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had their own plan, suspecting the Pirates would run: Manager Joe Girardi called for a back-pick, meaning he wanted a pitch high and tight so catcher Jose Molina could fire to first base behind Wilson and nail him.
Veras blew that two ways: One, by his admission, he tried to throw up and away. Two, as he put it, "It came back in on him."
And there it went.
Utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz, watching from the Pirates' dugout and familiar with his former team's machinations, shook his head at the whole scene.
"Unreal," Mientkiewicz said. "The other team's setting up for a back-pick, and you shouldn't even get a bat on the ball. Nate hits it out. Really. I'm telling you, what this kid is doing is phenomenal."
McLouth's home run was his 18th, his third in four games, and he has 62 RBIs, putting him on comfortable pace for a 30-100 season, something no one would have predicted when he was fighting for work this spring.
Most striking to some teammates, even when he struggles, as he did during a .214 June, his hits have mattered.
"I'm just comfortable. I don't know how else to say it," McLouth said. "In situations like that, you can either go up there and grip the bat tighter, or you can try to put a good swing on it. I love it when I'm up there like that."
Others are noticing.
"Nate McLouth is an outstanding player who can do anything," Girardi said. "He hits for average. He hits for power. He plays good defense, runs the ball down. He's a very good-looking, young player."
Maybe even one who will be welcomed with a few pointed boos when the National League All-Stars are introduced at Yankee Stadium next week.
"Aw, I hope not," McLouth said.
There was much else for the Pirates to appreciate, and that begins with Maholm, who held New York to two runs and seven hits while pitching with efficiency that has become common: He is 4-0 with a 2.66 ERA in eight starts since the end of May, and he, like McLouth, might be nearing a breakout point.
Maholm credited an adjustment made by pitching coach Jeff Andrews near that turnaround time, one in which he steps off the rubber closer to first base to create a more dramatic angle, especially for the sinker.
"Big difference," Maholm said. "I feel like I was pitching pretty well early on, with a few bad starts, but this seems like it's been building for a while."
To hear management tell it, Maholm has gone underappreciated because of an ordinary 6-5 record that easily could be better. But he surely did not go unappreciated when the crowd stood and roared as he walked off after a 1-2-3 eighth.
"Great to see," McLouth said. "He deserves it."
Three other standouts ...:
Wilson led off three innings out of the No. 9 spot, reached all three times and led to a run all three times. With the first two, Freddy Sanchez had RBIs.
Bautista made one charge-and-throw on a dribbler in the third, then a diving stop to his right to rob Melky Cabrera of a double in the fourth, the kind of plays that keep tight games tight. He also had two of the Pirates' nine hits in Mike Mussina's six innings.
Marte earned the last shout with a spirited ninth inning in which he once registered 97 mph -- 2 mph faster than his usual peak -- and set down the Yankees quietly for his fourth save, third since Matt Capps' departure.
The Pirates completed interleague play 6-9, including two of three against New York, which made the return trip from that June 26 rainout riding a four-game winning streak.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com. First Published July 11, 2008 4:00 AM