Gene Collier: Watson digs in, finds right answer

Somewhere amid its urgent atmospherics, the dense narrative of sweet baseball tension Wednesday managed to remind everyone that this was the kind of game that sultry end-of-summer days are made for.

Some mid-afternoon thunderheads paid a visit, but behaved themselves, and, after a wave of on-field threats came and went as well, the Pirates had withstood every St. Louis Cardinals gambit, and thus a pennant race rolls on.

“I think everybody in here knows that these are the games that matter now, what we work all offseason for and all through the season for,” said reliever Tony Watson, who wriggled out of an eighth-inning disturbance to help preserve a critical 3-1 victory in the North Shore sunlight.

“It’s almost September, almost the final lap. We’re in a good position, and it’s always good to win two out of three against a team in your division, especially one you’re looking [up] at in the standings.”

It was after Jeff Locke had outpitched 15-game winner Adam Wainwright through two hours packed with what the Pirates love to call high-leverage situations that Watson got ready for that Cardinals’ eighth.

Manager Clint Hurdle was content to let Locke start the inning, but alarm bells sounded the second Locke’s 3-2 pitch to Matt Carpenter missed the strike zone.

The starter lasted just two more pitches, the second flying on an easy arc to Andrew McCutchen in center.

For the purpose of dealing with the tying run at the plate in the person of Matt Holliday, Hurdle ignored a bullpenful of right-handed relievers to select left-hander Watson. Right-handed Holliday not only had accounted for the only Cardinals run with a 400-foot homer in the third, he had hit a seed to start the sixth that Neil Walker managed to smother near second and throw him out.

If there was a hitter in the St. Louis lineup who was anything close to locked in Wednesday, it was Holliday, and Hurdle was handing him a left-hander at one of the manager’s classic “tipping points.”

“We had our best guy on their best guy in that situation, [relative to] matchups, numbers,” Hurdle said. “[Watson] has shown the ability to get really good hitters out, good right-handed power hitters. His fastball in, glove-side, usually sets up anything else he wants to go to. That’s been his M.O., and he’s been so consistent with it.

“He’s a tough guy, and to bounce back after 36 pitches [Tuesday night] to get those two outs was just really big for us.”

That Watson did exactly that, set Holliday up with inside pitches on his way to a commanding 0-2 count, then slip a changeup past him on a 2-2 pitch and retire Matt Adams on an easy groundout to Walker, meant everything until the Cardinals’ ninth started, when Mark Melancon had to fight through the game’s final drama.

Jhonny Peralta rapped a first-pitch single to left, meaning St. Louis would send the tying run to the plate three more times. From that point, Melancon’s 24th save and second in two days took all of nine pitches.

Melancon’s earned run average at PNC Park got whittled to 0.81.

“It’s not any bigger than the next game, and that’s kind of my goal, not allow situations to take me out of my game,” Melancon said.

“It’s exciting because we’re getting down to the end. The situation is that these are pivotal games, so it’s a big deal.”

The big deal is that with 29 games to go, the Pirates have settled into third place in this division at a hard gallop, like a thoroughbred along the rail. As the final turn draws into view, they have a chance to surge.

They have the fading Cincinnati Reds this weekend at PNC Park, where they’ve won 16 of their past 23, then three with the Cardinals on the road, followed by seven games against last-place clubs, the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s precisely the right moment to resume winning in the manner to which they grew accustomed a summer ago, with starting pitching that has allowed only 3 earned runs in the past 232⁄3 innings, and with a defense that is better than the profile of its metrics.

“Right now, this is as solid a defensive club as we can put out there and maybe we’ve put out there in a long time,” said Hurdle after Josh Harrison, Walker and Starling Marte made elegant defensive plays on difficult chances to make the modest lead Wednesday stand up through most of three hours.

“Harrison’s range plays so well at third, his ability to come in, backhand, lay out, the accuracy of the throws, the quick snap of the double-play throw. Walker’s been so reliable, and [Jordy] Mercer continues to grow at shortstop, and both guys at first are holding their own. We’re probably not getting measured accurately.

“When you throw in all the errors from the team total [most of that with 25-error man Pedro Alvarez at third], it gets twisted a little. We like our team defense and we like it when pitchers work quick and we can be athletic out there.”

When you’re getting this kind of pitching and defense and an Ike Davis homer with runners on base every day, there’s no reason you shouldn’t continue to gallop.

Perchance even to accelerate.

Gene Collier:

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