Momentum rides with the Pirates, but . . .

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Case in point that there is no momentum in baseball: the Cincinnati Reds.

Storming through the first 23 days of September at a sizzling 14-7 pace, they had picked up 3 1/2 games on the sluggish Pirates, who were 11-11. If the Reds weren't primed to catch St. Louis, they were in position to breeze by the Pirates.

And then, for reasons no one could begin to explain, the Reds momentum snapped. They lost two straight to the New York Mets, a team that had been 14 games under .500.

Kill the momentum and -- perhaps -- kill the Reds, who lost their third straight Friday night, this time to the Pirates, 4-1.

Now it's the Pirates who are in position to put away the Reds and secure the home-field advantage for the wild-card playoff game. All the Pirates need do is win one of the next two games at the Great American Ball Park. If they can do that, the next time the teams play with be Tuesday -- at PNC Park.

Should be easy enough for the Pirates, who have won three of their past four. Except for this: There is no momentum in baseball.

The Pirates will have to rely, not on momentum, but on good pitching, sound defense and timely hitting, which is what they got last night in a beauty of game in which A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Pedro Alvarez excelled. But none of those three were the story of this game -- as much as Burnett tried to make it otherwise.

The most important thing that happened last night, aside for the victory, was the pitching of Jason Grilli. The Pirates one time superlative closer is coming back from injury and had been none too impressive since returning to the team Sept. 4. But manager Clint Hurdle put him back in the closer's role earlier this week and last night Grilli showed he just might belong there.

It's difficult to win in October without a strong closer and Grilli showed he could be up for that challenge with a nifty 1-2-3 inning in which he faced three extremely dangerous hitters -- Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce.

Votto got a single, but only after Grilli had clearly struck him out. As Votto was walking away from the plate, third base umpire Laz Diaz ruled that Votto had checked his swing -- which he clearly had not. Votto then singled. Undeterred, Grilli got Phillips to ground into a double play and Bruce on a bouncer to first.

The velocity is not there, but the heart, the guile and the confidence is. Will it be enough? The days of October will tell.

Byrd delivered a two-run single in the third to break up a scoreless game. In a 2-1 game in the sixth, after Byrd had doubled on a ball that missed being a home run by inches, Alvarez put one into the stands that cleared by yards.

There was still some drama to play out. With two on and one out in the eighth and Clint Barmes at bat, Travis Snider was in the on-deck circle, presumably, to hit for Burnett. But when Barmes struck out, Hurdle sent Burnett out to bat. Burnett then worked the eighth and retired the Reds 1-2-3 on 10 pitches.

That set his pitch total at 99 for the game. Since he had thrown over 100 pitches 19 times this season and threw 116 at recently as Aug. 25 and since he had retired the final 10 batters he faced, Burnett believed he would pitch the ninth. Hurdle felt otherwise and when he notified Burnett the news was not accepted magnanimously. Hurdle was opening himself up for a volley of criticism for removing a successful starting pitcher. The strategy has failed him twice in the recent past, but he stuck with it.

Burnett, who allowed five hits and one walk while striking out six in another clutch performance, stalked the dugout saying some words he maybe should not have said and when he finally sat down, no teammate wanted to get near him. But he mellowed as the inning progressed -- realizing, presumably, he's part of a team. By the time the Pirates had made their third out Burnett was up for accepting congratulatory hugs.

Charlie Morton pitches this afternoon as the Pirates attempt to secure the first postseason game in the history of PNC Park. If he can't get it done, Gerrit Cole will pitch Sunday.

It's looking good. It's not over.

bobsmiziksports


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