Collier: Home atmosphere brightened with offense
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The first fifth of this curious Pirates season found manager Clint Hurdle's team awash in dreadful offense, the exact junk brand of unreliable run production likely to preclude its position in the National League Central Division standings after 33 games.
But there they are, 2 1/2 games out with 129 to play, not bad at all for a team hitting .234, with more strikeouts than hits, with next to nothing by way of meaningful contribution from its most promising thumper -- one homer and seven runs batted in from hobbling third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
While Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist was driving in 18 runs inside of a week in late April, the Pirates were finishing the entire month without anyone plating more than 14. The lowlight offensively probably came April 28 in a Thursday afternoon game, when San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson needed 27 pitches to get through the ninth inning, and the Pirates did not put one of them in play.
Wilson walked the leadoff man and struck out the side on 27 pitches. That's hard to do. Harder for whom, the pitcher or the alleged hitters, I'm not sure.
Anyway, the alleged hitters were back on stage again Saturday night, trying to arrange some kind of rally -- or two -- that Charlie Morton could turn into a victory in this, the awakened spring of his enormous rebound.
"I am currently perplexed by our hitting .197 at home," Hurdle said three hours before a 6-1 victory that pulled the Pirates record to 16-17. "This is a good hitters park. There's a lot of grass out there. Some guys I think have let a little lack of self-confidence tug at their batting average instead of going up there with bad intentions."
It probably wasn't Lyle Overbay's intention to make it to Mother's Day with exactly two homers, but he was still so glad to see a belt-high fastball from Houston's Bud Norris in the second inning that he nearly drove it over the right-field bleachers.
Chris Snyder drew a walk and Ronny Cedeno singled an out later, and after Morton fanned, Andrew McCutchen delivered the kind of hit the Pirates have lacked all season on the home lawn.
Hitting the first pitch for the second consecutive at-bat (he singled in the first), McCutchen rode another elevated fastball all the way to the bullpen fence in deepest left-center field.
"Welcome to Pittsburgh," McCutchen said when someone suggested that ball seemed to have home run carry. "This offense has potential right to the ceiling. We've produced runs, gotten big hits, just mostly on the road. But we know we can do it."
That double made it 3-0, which is the kind of lead that looks bigger than it is behind Morton these days, but the Pirates quickly reverted to wasting opportunities. Garrett Jones was on third with one out an inning later, but Overbay struck out and Snyder did the same. Neil Walker made it to third with one out in the sixth, but Brandon Wood tapped into an inning-ending double play.
"We left some runs on the table again and those are the situations that keep challenging us," Hurdle said. "We've got to be more efficient in those spots."
Fortunately, the Astros were ready with their own early season trademark in the eighth, namely a wretchedly pitched inning. They don't have the worst earned run average in baseball for nothin'.
Jose Valdez (ERA 12.71) started the inning by walking Jose Tabata, then served a one-out single to Walker. He fanned Overbay but walked Snyder to load the bases, then gave way to Enerio Del Rosario (ERA 5.14), who only needed to retire the 0-for-3 Wood to keep Houston in the game.
"A couple of innings before I didn't get the job done, runner on third, less than two [outs]," Wood said, "so I was just looking for something I could handle. I chased a slider away (on a 1-1 pitch), but then he gave me something middle in that I could turn on."
Wood, the one guy in the lineup with a .300 average when the game started, ripped that 1-2 pitch down the left-field line, fair by inches, and the Pirates led, 5-1. Snyder then scored on a wild pitch and the 6-1 final looked like a authentic offensive explosion to cue the fireworks.
It was an overdue inversion of the home atmosphere, marked by a lot of dreary wet nights, intimate fan assemblies, and nine losses in the first 13 games on the North Side. A decent serving of runs for a crowd of 32,299 tasted fairly palatable.
"It's a good feeling for us and for that crowd," Hurdle said. "We haven't won a lot of games here and we hope this is a catalyst for us and for the fans."
First Published May 8, 2011 2:41 am