Gene Collier: Avoiding key players helps dodge losing

No team turns up its nose at a 4-2 homestand in the big leagues, but that doesn't mean a 4-2 homestand can't stink, stink all the way to the Loudon Wainwright-prescribed high heaven, given the right atmospherics.

The one the Pirates finished Wednesday night would have rocked a perfect dead-skunk-in-the-middle-of-the-road bouquet had they dropped two of three to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team so preoccupied with the looming weekend they practically gave this series away.

"We don't come in at the start of a series and say we want to do a sweep or anything like that," said Josh Harrison, whose two-run double in the first inning launched the Pirates to a 6-1 victory and the unchartered territory of seven games over .500. "Any time you can win a series, you'll take it, and we're very happy with the way the homestand went."

The Dodgers were busily trying to pry middle-of-the-lineup thumpers Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig out of the trainer's room for a major collision with the behated San Francisco Giants, the team one step ahead of them in the two-team race in the National League West Division.

Puig made a cameo in the eighth with the Dodgers trailing, 6-1, pinch-hitting against Justin Wilson and drawing a five-pitch walk, but there was really no sense exposing the fate-tempting bruises of Ramirez and Puig to the random impulses of the Pirates, a team the Dodgers have beaten with such historically reliability it's close to comical.

Since the opening of PNC Park, you might note, no team in Major League Baseball has beaten any other team with the pulsating rhythm of the Dodgers pounding on the Pirates, here and in Hollywood.

Coming into Wednesday night, the Dodgers were 69-30 against the Pirates over the past 14 seasons, a drubbing so thorough (a .697 winning percentage) it was unmatched even by such predictable mayhem as the New York Yankees throttling the Kansas City Royals (66-30 over the same stretch) and that thing the Yankees do to the Minnesota Twins (also 66-30).

It was that history that informed Don Mattingly's strategy for this series more than the three-out-of-four the Pirates took from his Dodgers in Los Angeles in late May/early June. That's why the Pirates didn't have to deal with Clayton Kershaw in this series, and why, if less directly, they didn't encounter Zack Greinke either.

"I think any time, regardless of who's pitching or what the lineup is, we're looking to win series after series," said Travis Snider, who homered after starting again in left for the now-officially disabled Starling Marte. "You have to remain in that one-game-at-a-time focus.

"That's something we've preached here and we really believe in it."

Still, the duo of missing Los Angeles aces is a combined 22-8, but took no turn in Pittsburgh. Left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, Mattingly's third 11-game winner, beat the Pirates Monday, 5-2.

So after jumping on a fresh-off-the-disabled list Josh Beckett for a 12-7 win Tuesday, it would have been criminal for the Pirates to ignore the walking opportunity named Dan Haren when the well-traveled right-hander walked to the North Side mound Wednesday.

"We plan on winning every series, I'm kind of weird that way," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Regardless of who they're pitching, who we're pitching, when we're at home, we expect to win series. You draw who you draw. Sometimes, it just depends on when you play teams.

"We knew [Ryu] was going to be tough and Beckett can be tough anytime. But our guys, overall, just played a better series than they did, in the entire game."

Now with his sixth club in 12 years, Haren had lost three consecutive starts and looked to be carrying every intention to make it four.

Gregory Polanco lined his second pitch to right for a single and Travis Snider lined his third to left for another one. After Andrew McCutchen's surface missile smoked itself right into the glove of Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe, Haren walked Neil Walker and Russell Martin successively to bring in Polanco.

Ike Davis brought in Snider with a fly ball to left, and Harrison, playing third for the ailing Pedro Alvarez, doubled to clear the basis and make it 4-0.

Snider then rode the first pitch he saw in the second all the way to the back row of the right-field bleachers and it was 5-0 Pirates after seven official Bucco at-bats.

That's not how I might have seen Greinke's night going.

Much less Kershaw's.

When McCutchen added an RBI double against Paul Maholm in the seventh and made it 6-1, Hurdle's team was already mentally at the weekend as well.

The Pirates will be in Colorado, where they will avoid the recently disabled Troy Tulowitzki (do you see a pattern emerging here?), then it's on to San Francisco for three against the formidable Giants before the 10-game road trip wraps up with four games against the seriously non-formidable Arizona Diamondbacks.

You never turn your nose up at a 5-5 road trip in the big leagues, but given the urgency and the landscape, 6-4 would smell a lot better.

So does a 5-1 homestand. Apparently, the Pirates don't have the best home record in the NL (34-21) for nothin'.

Gene Collier:

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