Hurdle, Barajas break silence with last laugh

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On a night so quiet inside PNC Park you could hear the laughter, you could also unwittingly violate vendor-client privilege, pick up the patter of infielders instructing each other in mid-play (cut it-cut it-cut it-cut it!), and even record the exact moment at which someone yelled Babe Ruth's name at Bryce Harper.

Harper has been in the big leagues for all of 10 days, but this 19-year-old drew so many outrageous comparisons on his way to the Washington Nationals that a mere Ruthian reference seemed just about as tame as the baseball atmosphere for his first visit to Pittsburgh.

Perhaps only the triumphal return of Matt Diaz would have equaled the tepid energy level generated by the smallest North Side crowd of the young season.

The Pirates announced that 10,323 paid, far fewer of whom showed, and far fewer still appeared acutely aware that had Harper launched his first major league homer Tuesday night, the number who will ultimately claim to have been there might be 100 times that.

Should Harper's ostensibly golden future reach its full 24-carat luster, that is.

And as a famous pitcher once said in an ominous tone, "remember one word, yaneverknow."

But if the little gathering Tuesday night wasn't terribly interested in history, it got some twisted semblance of it anyway when Rod Barajas was not only allowed to come to the plate in the ninth with the tying run on third and two outs, but picked that improbable moment to launch his first home run this season, his first as a Pirates player, and just about the last thing anyone except Clint Hurdle and bench coach bench coach Jeff Banister expected to see.

"I kind of thought something was gonna happen," Hurdle grinned in the credulity stretching aftermath of a 5-4 victory. "I was talkin' to Banny and he said, 'I got a feeling,' and I said, 'I gotta feeling, too.' "

Hurdle, who four hours before the first pitch was explaining that the batters at the bottom end of his lineup had to remain confident even if there was no statistical basis for confidence, admitted he had run into some mixed feelings in the dugout about whether to send Barajas to the plate to extend an 0-for-4 game that had leveled his batting average at .125. Had he polled the 10,323, the very notion would have been shouted down by about 99 percent present.

Hurdle's options weren't sterling. He had already emptied his bench of Nate McLouth, Alex Presley, who served a key single with one out in the ninth, and Yamaico Navarro, who nearly swung out of his shoes striking out in front of Barajas. Josh Harrison and Michael McHenry were available, both of whom have big hits on their think resumes, but Hurdle stuck with his starting catcher, who left the on-deck circle 8 for 64.

"We've got guys [at the bottom of the lineup] that you know that when things just recalibrate themselves that things will get better," Hurdle had said. "But there has to be a sense of urgency, too. Our focus and concentration have not always sustained themselves throughout the at-bats."

Barajas solved that problem -- he swatted a pitch from Washington's Henry Rodriguez into the seats in left.

Rodriguez was after his seventh save. The league was hitting .122 against him. He had not allowed a homer.

The homer meant the Pirates had started a series with a victory for only the second time this season, to say nothing about a big draw tonight -- the possibility of putting wins back to back for only the third time.

If the 10,323 were not intrigued by an initial look at Harper, who doubled in a 1-for-4 performance, maybe it's because their Pirates continue to be downright quirky. A semi-astounding issue was: Could a team that already has alternated wins and losses with an astounding rhythm (actually going W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L from April 18 through May 1), now string together a counter-rhythm half as long: L-W-L-W-L-W?

And that answer was, uh, yes.

Even in a game when Joel Hanrahan stood on the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth, having hammered down 45 of his past 49 save opportunities, and was suddenly imperfect.

The only thing resembling history in the pre-Barajas ninth was the 35th PNC Park homer by one Adam LaRoche, who spent parts of three undistinguished seasons with the Pirates at the end of the previous decade.

LaRoche rode Hanrahan's full-count pitch over the padding in center field for the two-run shot that boosted the Nationals into a 4-3 lead.

A woman in the upper deck actually cackled at that one.

But the biggest grin in Pittsburgh Tuesday night was Hurdle's when he claimed that "feeling" that his .125 hitter was going to flip this quiet event into the win column with one swing.

On the game's final pitch, things got loud.

genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published May 9, 2012 12:00 AM


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