Pirates reward lively crowd for home finale
Neil Walker celebrates with teammates after the Pirates beat the Astros, 9-3, Sunday in the season finale at PNC Park.
Pedro Alvarez flips a bat to the top of the Pirates' dugout for a fan after the game Sunday. Several players tossed equipment and signed autographs.
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No one among the 23,208 fans inside PNC Park on this grey Sunday afternoon threw a pitch or swung a bat, but the Pirates' players, to a man, credited the crowd with the 9-3 rout of Houston that closed the 2010 home schedule.
And they did so, in some cases, with visible emotion.
"Thank you to the fans," left fielder Jose Tabata said afterward. "After all this ... thank you."
After all this, indeed.
These Pirates are 55-100, and they have played some of the worst baseball this franchise has seen in a half-century. But this homestand saw a five-game winning streak, a 7-2 overall mark, two of three taken from the Astros and, to cap it, Paul Maholm pitched seven strong innings, Pedro Alvarez had a two-run double among his three hits, and Neil Walker had three more RBIs.
Was it hollow?
Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 8:15 p.m., Busch Stadium.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: : RHP Charlie Morton (2-11, 8.11) vs. RHP Kyle Lohse (4-8, 7.18).
Key matchup: New Charlie vs. old Charlie. For September, he is 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in four starts, by far his best pitching of the year.
Of note: The Pirates have lost six in a row at Busch.
In the most tangible sense, little in sports means less than September baseball in Pittsburgh.
At the same time, this crowd -- always thick with season-ticket holders for a home finale -- might have been more vocal, more responsive to the action than any all year, including the seven sellouts: Each player, especially the roster's youngest, was given a warm ovation upon being introduced for the first at-bat, the kind of thing one generally hears in St. Louis and few other places. When Tabata took left field after his videotaped announcement about players giving fans the jerseys off their backs -- all players did one -- he took the extra, spontaneous step of doffing his cap twice, and the place responded in kind. Even when Houston's J.A. Happ silenced the Pirates through five innings, the cheers and chants kept coming.
By the time the offense broke out, it seemed almost symbiotic.
"We were talking about it in the dugout," Walker said. "It was nice to give back to these people."
No one in the organization knows these fans better than Walker, who was one of them not so long ago.
"It's the tip of the iceberg, with the way people in Western Pennsylvania are supportive of our sports teams," Walker said. "It says something that they came out here, given our wins and losses, and we tried hard to finish on a good note. We feel like we did that."
"It's enough to get your imagination going, like, what's it going to be like when we start winning?" catcher Ryan Doumit said. "It's no secret that there's a following for the Steelers and Penguins wherever you go in the country. And I know the Pirates' fans are out there. I know that. We need to start winning, and it's going to be a lot of fun."
Manager John Russell had placed heavy emphasis on the homestand, this after a 1-6 trip to Cincinnati and New York, and publicly challenged the players to go at least 8-1 and finish the season with a winning home record. Alas, they went 7-2, their best stretch all year, and wound up 40-41 at PNC Park, a violent contrast to the 15-59 everywhere else.
"I'm proud of the way they responded," Russell said. "And to have a game like that, feeling like the city's behind us ... we're getting close, and I think people know that."
That will remain in serious doubt, of course, pending how ownership and management react this offseason to a dire need for pitching and at least one significant bat. But it surely would have been a challenge for the Pirates to envision a better send-off on the field.
It started with the resurgent Maholm allowing one run and six hits over his seven innings. He struck out seven, walked one and, maybe most important given his trademark sinker, 11 ground-ball outs.
"I just feel like I'm back to my regular mechanics," Maholm said. "It's good to be finishing like this."
Before the previous start, Maholm and pitching coach Ray Searage shifted the position of his left foot on the rubber, and the result has been "all of my pitches have gotten better," as Maholm put it. He has allowed three total runs over his past two starts and, at 9-15, can become the Pirates' only 10-game winner, though he acknowledged that was "sad."
Houston struck in the first on Carlos Lee's two-out RBI double, and the Pirates finally broke through against Happ, owner of a 2.77 ERA, for two unearned runs in the sixth.
Garrett Jones drew a one-out walk. When he was set in motion, Alvarez dropped a single right where the shortstop usually would be, and runners were at the corners. Ronny Cedeno bounced to third baseman Chris Johnson, who had Jones hung up between third and home. But Johnson's throw was muffed by catcher Jason Castro, and Jones tiptoed past him to tie it.
Alvarez, having taken third on the error, scored on Andy LaRoche's sacrifice fly, and the Pirates were up, 2-1. Happ was done after that inning.
Pinch-hitter Delwyn Young walked to open the seventh, and Andrew McCutchen singled to reach base for the fourth time and extend his streak of reaching safely to 21 games. One out later, the Astros turned around Walker to the right side by summoning left-handed reliever Fernando Abad, and Walker answered by rapping an RBI single to left.
Walker is batting .294 from the right side, .303 from the left.
Why so many turnarounds?
"I don't know, but I'm starting to get dizzy," he said with a laugh. "Feels good to get a hit in those situations."
Evan Meek gave up Hunter Pence's two-run home run in the Houston eighth, but the Pirates answered in the bottom half on Doumit's RBI single and Walker's two-run double.
Reality check: The season ends with seven games in St. Louis and Miami, well outside city limits.
First Published September 27, 2010 12:00 am