The Vanimal is back.
Well, at least for one day, he's back.
Vance Worley shook off three bad starts in a row with a near-dominant performance Saturday and pitched the Pirates to a 3-2 win against the Cincinnati Reds before a crowd of 38,023 at PNC Park.
It was the Pirates' fourth win in a row and seventh in their past nine games. It was similar to the other wins in that stretch because of the strong outing from a starting pitcher.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle praised Worley and said that the starters have led the team back into the thick of the playoff race.
"The starters are setting everything up for us," Hurdle said. "Their depth in these games, the efficiency of pitches, the maintenance they are bringing to the ballpark and then, once the game starts, throwing efficient innings. It just makes everything works better.
"If those starters keep grinding like they are, it is going to really put us in a good place. And Worley was much more efficient ... a better angle on all his pitches, a good mix from start to finish, he was able to make some pitches -- it is exactly what we needed to see from him."
Worley (6-4) went 61/3 innings, gave up three hits, two runs (one earned) and struck out four. He walked two.
He made one key mistake and paid for it when Reds third baseman Todd Frazier hit a solo homer in the top of the fourth inning.
Worley said he knew he needed to have a good outing because of his recent struggles.
He also said he knew he would have to match pitches with Reds starter Alfredo Simon.
"I was able to get the ball down in the zone to start the game," Worley said. "The last few outings, I was up in the zone and gave up runs and was working from behind. ... It was a matter of being able to get my angle on the ball again.
"Those three runs we got early, too, were huge."
And they came quickly.
Andrew Lambo, starting in right and batting second, got the rally started for the second day in a row, this time with a one-out single to left in the first. Andrew McCutchen walked before Neil Walker hit a three-run homer over the right-center wall to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead.
Walker wanted to be aggressive against Simon the first time he saw him because he knew Simon would get tougher to hit as the game wore on.
He also noticed Simon was feeling his way through the first two batters. So, even though Simon had just walked McCutchen, he was going to swing at the first good pitch.
"I think he was trying to establish his fastball the first time through the order and was a little more tentative than we are used to seeing him," Walker said. "And then, after he walked Cutch, I was thinking being aggressive was something I wanted to do, get my swing off, and fortunately it worked out for me.
"After that, I think we ticked him off because he stopped throwing as many fastballs and had success with his slider, cutter and changeup."
The Pirates threatened to widen their early lead when Russell Martin followed Walker with a double to left center, but Simon got Ike Davis and Starling Marte to hit into back-to-back groundouts to end the inning.
Simon (13-9) allowed only one more hit the next six innings, but didn't get much offensive help and left in the eighth with the Reds trailing, 3-2.
The Reds' second run came in the seventh and was charged to Worley, but left-handed reliever Justin Wilson was on the mound when it scored courtesy of an error by Davis on a pop fly to shallow right.
The win clinched a third series in a row for the Pirates (71-64).
The Reds managed three hits while the Pirates had four. The Pirates have won the first two games of this series while scoring in two of the 16 innings in which they have batted.
Walker said winning two in a row with very little offense shows how good the Pirates pitchers have been, and he said that has been the formula for the Pirates' success the past two seasons.
"That is a testament to our pitching staff, honestly," Walker said. "Those guys have been fantastic from top to bottom, be it the starter or relievers or whoever has been out there.
"Those guys have kept us in so many games. Offensively. we have done some really good things, but we know at the end of the day that pitching and defense will take us where we want to go."
The Pirates improved to 44-27 at PNC Park and have won 18 of their past 25 games at home.
"I guess we're just comfortable here," Walker said with a smile when he was asked why the Pirates have been so good at PNC Park this year.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.