Gene Collier: Big weekend opens with thumbs-down effort



CINCINNATI -- After 90-plus games of hacking their way through heavy National League Central underbrush, the Pirates had come at long last to a clearing.

So it is here, along the moonlit banks of the Ohio, that they could finally see in each other the totality of their division-race potential, even when it is presented in the form of an unforeseen question, namely, "When did the National League Central turn into Game of Thumbs?"

Clint Hurdle's team is doubtless acutely aware that within hours of each other this week, two of this summer-long drama's primary characters were disabled with thumb injuries -- the left thumb of Cincinnati's formidable Brandon Phillips sending him to the wings for four weeks, the right thumb of St. Louis stalwart Yadier Molina dooming him to the shelf for eight or more, and all as the division-leading Brewers were spending a week and a half playing with their thumbs in an un-prescribed place.

As the Pirates and Reds locked antlers at the start of this final series before the All-Star break then, the top four teams were separated by 3½ games, meaning if they didn't see it before, surely now they see a pathway to real progress.

They might even win this thing.

One for the thumbs.

In theory.

"We don't post the standings," Hurdle was saying as the weekend started. "These guys have an awareness in the social media aspect, they have awareness of where we stand. Plus usually they post them on the Jumbotron."

Right, but the most impressive thing in or out of the electronics Friday night was Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman, who arrived in the minutes after Cincinnati's bailing-wire offense tore up Tony Watson with a five-hit, three-run eighth on the way to a 6-5 comeback win.

Chapman blowtorched three Pirates on 13 pitches ranging from 87 to 103 mph, emphatically punctuating one peach of a big league baseball game.

When you kick away a 5-1 lead, as Hurdle's team did in the last three innings, it's not evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the club understands the opportunity at hand.

"We talk more about what we need to do, not what other people are doing," Hurdle said. "We continue to challenge ourselves to get a little bit better every day; I mean look at how this thing has twisted already in three months. The league is settled. [And] We're on the outside looking in. [Then] the Brewers are running away with things. Now we have four teams all tightened up. It should be an exciting series."

So far it is, but this is the third time in five road games where the opponent has won in the final at bat.

When that happens, Watson isn't typically the culprit. He'd been scored upon in only four of 43 appearances before Friday night, but Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, with two out and nobody on in the home eighth, homered to start a fireworks display that wasn't over until the last postgame pyrotechnic had faded over the Northern Kentucky shoreline.

"The anxieties of thoughts of outside people don't have to be ours," Hurdle said. "We're more in tune with what we need to do as far as playing well than who you're playing, what d'ya gotta do, do you bottom-feed on four last place teams, whatever, then we go to St. Louis and we gotta do this -- there's too much emotional stuff tied to that. When we focus on our game we're served best."

There could not have been a better time for the Pirates to spend a weekend in the Queen City, with former MVP Joey Votto on a Reds disabled list longer than a Johnny Manziel bar tab, with Phillips having joined him there, with Skip Schumaker going to the 7-day (concussion) DL right before game time Friday night, and with starting pitcher Mat Latos moving his aching back around on the mound with all the grace of your grandfather emerging from a taxi.

In an ice storm.

Latos left enough pitches in the middle of the plate to tempt an early exit, but the Pirates didn't make him pay until Andrew McCutchen drilled his 18th career Reds-bedeviling homer in the fourth, followed by an error, a walk, and a 2-0 fastball to Pedro Alvarez that begged to be blistered.

Alvarez tattooed it, launching it 419 feet to right over the Pirates bullpen for a three-run lead, 419 being almost as far as his throw to first in the seventh, the one that started an uncomfortable kitchen fire that chased starter Jeff Locke and brought the Reds within 5-3.

This has become an ignominious defensive summer for Alvarez, but there was no confirmation that his 2015 baseball card will say Pedro Alvarez, Bats: Left. Throws: Wrong.

The Pirates have won three times in 11 tries against the Reds; they'll need to win the two of the next two to salvage the road trip.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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