A few hours before the Pirates took the field last night, John Russell seemed to be bracing for another long one, with another Class AA starter making his debut and another onslaught surely on the way.
"But you know what?" Russell would say. "We've had injuries, had trouble with our pitching, and we've kept battling. We've never given up. I'm proud of them."
He had no idea.
By evening's end, he watched his team overcome two six-run deficits, mount a four-run rally to tie in the bottom of the ninth and, even after giving up another run to St. Louis in the 10th, answer right away with a two-run home run by Jason Michaels to walk off with an astounding 12-11 triumph over the Cardinals at PNC Park.
Check the box score.
- Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (3-7, 5.84) vs. RHP Joel Pineiro (3-4, 4.17).
- Key matchup: Pineiro has manhandled the Pirates since coming from the American League last year: In four starts, he is 3-0 with a 2.81 ERA and just five walks.
- Of note: At the All-Star break a year ago, the Pirates were 40-48, eight games under .500 and nine games out of first place. With the break coming after the game today, they are 44-49, five games under .500 and 12 1/2 games out of first.
It could be described as one of the great comebacks in the franchise's recent history, certainly the best since Brian Giles' grand slam off Billy Wagner capped a six-run ninth in July 2001. But that might not do this one justice, if only because it involved so many comebacks.
"It's one of our more amazing games that I've been involved in," left fielder Jason Bay said after his 18th and 19th home runs. "I'll never forget it."
"You're down that many runs, you still expect to score," first baseman Adam LaRoche said after his 11th home run. "But that? And to have us do that again and again all year? I'm telling you, most guys would consider themselves to be really lucky to be part of a lineup like this. It's special."
The numbers do not lie: The Pirates' 454 runs rank seventh in all of Major League Baseball, and their 98 home runs, including the five last night, rank 11th. That might not mean much in the scope of the sport as a whole, but it is the best offense seen in these parts since, what, 1992?
All of which goes a long way toward explaining these 23 comeback victories that, if not for all this abysmal pitching, would be defining this team.
To be sure, there was more of that caliber of pitching on this night: Yoslan Herrera, fresh up from Altoona, was clubbed for six runs in 4 1/3 innings. And four of the six relievers who followed -- T.J. Beam, Sean Burnett, Tyler Yates and Denny Bautista -- were scored upon, too.
As Burnett put it, "We as a staff kept digging holes for the offense, and they kept digging out."
Well, get out the shovels ...
St. Louis had a 9-3 lead after the top of the seventh and, when, Jose Bautista's RBI single chased starter Todd Wellemeyer, it looked like a stats-padder. Especially when the Cardinals added another in the eighth to make it 10-4.
That was the score with two outs in the bottom half, meaning the Pirates had four outs to come up with six runs. Bay got a third of that with his second two-run shot.
It was 10-6.
Jason Isringhausen fanned Bautista for the first out of the ninth, but Michaels walked as a pinch-hitter, and Jack Wilson narrowly legged out an infield single. That brought up Nate McLouth, who has been feasting on such situations, and he again came through by launching a three-run home run into the center-field seats
It was 10-9.
"We're all in that dugout, the whole inning, believing this can happen," McLouth said.
Luis Rivas and Ryan Doumit singled off Kyle McClellan to put men at the corners, and Bay hit a bouncer that looked like a 6-4-3 double play, but second baseman Aaron Miles never got off a relay and allowed Rivas to sprint home.
"Couldn't get it out of my glove," Miles explained.
It was 10-10. Honest.Deep in historyWith his two home runs last night, Jason Bay moved into the top 10 on the Pirates' all-time home run list:
PlayerNo.1. Willie Stargell4752. Ralph Kiner3013. Roberto Clemente2404. Barry Bonds1765. Dave Parker1666. Brian Giles1657. Frank Thomas1638. Bill Mazeroski1389t. Jason Bay1369t. Kevin Young136
The small portion of the crowd of 29,387 that toughed it out leaped and roared, but not for long: St. Louis' first batter of the 10th, Troy Glaus, crushed a Denny Bautista fastball into the bleachers, and the Cardinals were back up by one.
If that was not deflating enough, Xavier Nady and LaRoche, were out of the Pirates' equation for extra innings: Nady was lifted as part of a double switch that Russell acknowledged was "debated," inserting Raul Chavez at catcher and moving Doumit to first base for the first time this season. Chavez was placed in LaRoche's slot because LaRoche had hurt his thumb in the ninth.
The end result: Michaels stayed in the game at right.
"Good thing, too," Russell said with a grin.
Chavez led off and fell behind McClellan with two quick strikes, but he waited out two balls and fouled off another pitch before lining a single into left.
Hope was revived.
"Great at-bat by Chavez," Michaels said.
Chris Perez, St. Louis' youngest reliever at 22, was summoned to try to stop the bleeding on a night when neither team could find a tourniquet.
"Big situation, coming in like that, chance to protect a lead," Perez said. "I just blew it."
Not right away. Jose Bautista popped out.
But Michaels, after taking a ball, put the sweet part of the bat on a 95-mph fastball -- over the inner part of the plate -- and sent it beyond the North Side Notch, deepest part of the park, for the first walkoff home run of his 11 professional seasons.
"Easily, this was No. 1," he said, minutes after being mobbed at home plate. "I don't consider myself a home run hitter, so I just went up there look for a good at-bat."
"Outstanding," Russell said. "He's had a few big hits for us."
The numbers do not lie there, either: Michaels has 25 RBIs in just 100 at-bats with the Pirates and is batting .422 with runners in scoring position.
The Pirates made the most of 13 hits, while St. Louis emerged the unlikeliest of losers after piling up 22.
Herrera was responsible for half of those, and he also walked four, but he drew mild praise from Russell.
"I thought he was OK," Russell said. "He's got to use the fastball. He went too soft too soon, and they adjusted."
Herrera had a promising opening inning in fanning Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel with dynamic changeups, but the Cardinals began timing that pitch and took off.
"Yes, they did," Herrera said. "The change was moving a lot, but maybe I threw too many."
LaRoche's right thumb was bruised when he failed to catch a popup in the ninth, but X-rays detected no fracture. Perhaps more important, it is not related to the thumb/wrist trouble that has hampered him much of the summer. He might miss no more than the game today, with the All-Star break coming.
Also, reliever Romulo Sanchez was not used, despite a score that was lopsided at times because of an unspecified arm injury. He had his right elbow iced after the game. That did not appear serious, either, though, as Russell said afterward that Sanchez could have pitched if needed.
The rubber match is today. Bring an extra scorecard.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 13, 2008 4:00 AM