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Reborn Volquez proud to start Wild Card Game

Righty turned his career around during first season with Pirates

Reborn Volquez proud to start Wild Card Game

PITTSBURGH -- On the periphery of the Pirates' raucous celebration of the clinching of a postseason berth on Sept. 23, a very touching, low-key scene took place in a quiet corner of the Turner Field visitors' clubhouse.

Edinson Volquez, the reborn pitcher, and Ray Searage, the pitching coach who gave him new life, exchanged heartfelt gratitude to each other.


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"We don't have those kinds of guys all through our careers," said Volquez, who had made three Major League stops before arriving in Pittsburgh. "I was lucky to find one. He's very proud of what he did for me, and I'm very proud, too."

Confirmation of Volquez as the Bucs' latest mound miracle was punctuated with Monday morning's confirmation that he will start Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game against the Giants at PNC Park (watch on ESPN at 8:07 p.m. ET).

"I'd be very proud to get the ball," Volquez said following Sunday's game in Cincinnati, before manager Clint Hurdle had made the assignment official. "It's what I've been talking about since early in Spring Training, hoping to get this kind of opportunity."

Among other things, it will be an opportunity to improve on his only prior postseason start: On Oct. 6, 2010, Volquez started Game 1 of the NL Division Series for the Reds in Philadelphia, and he was chased in 1 2/3 innings, allowing four runs.

That performance by Volquez was forgettable for another reason: Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter for the Phillies.

Volquez did not make a start this season against the Giants, and he has a streak of nine winless starts against them since beating them twice in 2008.

Improvement has been a Volquez trademark all season. After ranking last among all Major League starters in 2013 with a 5.71 ERA, he trimmed that number almost in half, with a 3.04 mark in 31 starts and one relief appearance this season. After leading the NL with 105 walks in 2012, in 10 more innings this season he walked 34 fewer.

There were even in-season improvements: Giving up four home runs in a May 17 game at Yankee Stadium brought his season ledger to nine long balls in eight starts and 49 2/3 innings; since, Volquez has given up eight in 23 starts and 143 innings.

Keeping the ball in the park is one element that makes Volquez the Pirates' hottest pitcher, and a logical choice for the first postseason assignment. He has fashioned a 1.78 ERA across his last 12 starts, and has not lost since his first outing following the All-Star Game.

The PNC Park inset of that big picture is even sharper. Volquez has allowed four earned runs in his last five home starts, and only five home runs in 17 starts and 106 innings in Pittsburgh.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Bucs, Giants both like their Wild Card chances

Bumgarner, Volquez look to display ace form in Wednesday's showdown

Bucs, Giants both like their Wild Card chances

One team has the recent postseason pedigree of a two-time champion. The other caught October fever last year and apparently doesn't want the cure.

When the San Francisco Giants travel to PNC Park to play the Pittsburgh Pirates in Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game, with first pitch set for 8:07 p.m. ET on ESPN and Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner getting the ball against Pirates righty Edinson Volquez, the winning team will march ahead to a Division Series battle against the top-seeded Washington Nationals. And don't think for a second that Washington won't have all it can handle.


The Giants took the Dodgers to the final week in the NL West, and the Pirates took the Cardinals to the final day in the NL Central. In other words, both clubs are deserving of the playoffs, and both are ready to play these crucial nine innings -- or more -- to earn the right to move on.

For San Francisco, which won World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, the key to getting this far in the next even-numbered year has been resilience, a core of veterans, and organizational depth, particularly in the form of young players who stepped in for injured regulars and made a huge difference.

On Wednesday, count on witnessing contributions from several of these unheralded rookies, including infielder Joe Panik, backup catcher Andrew Susak, reliever Hunter Strickland and pinch-hitter Matt Duffy, who helped stabilize a roster that was depleted by a season-ending injury to starter Matt Cain and long periods of inactivity for key position players Brandon Belt, Michael Morse and Marco Scutaro.

"They more than held their own," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said of the youngsters. "That's something none of us expected. ... You just don't see guys jump into the fire like that with that little Minor League experience. It's pretty amazing to think they can perform on this stage and contribute."

The Giants already know that their Wild Card Game starter, Bumgarner, can perform on this stage -- he's already got a Division Series win and two World Series victories on his resume.

Meanwhile, the Pirates will ante up with Volquez after taking a chance with ace Gerrit Cole in Sunday's game against Cincinnati to try to force a Game 163 tiebreaker at St. Louis to decide the NL Central. The Cole maneuver didn't pay off, but the Pirates were convinced they had to do it.

"I know the voice and heartbeat of those 35 men out there," manager Clint Hurdle said. "They're all in, they're going out to win this ballgame, then whatever happens, happens.

"We've been second-guessed the whole season on how we do things, so you do what you believe in. Then Edinson Volquez can have the Wild Card Game; we like our chances with him pitching."

The Pirates have to like their chances. They've been one of the best teams in baseball in September, led by last year's NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen, and a pitching staff and bullpen that have been dominant of late.

"Sure, all of us wanted to win the division, but at the end of the day, we know where we stand, and we can look forward to Wednesday," third baseman Josh Harrison said. "We know we've got something to look forward to, and that's October."

Added Hurdle: "I like our team. I do like the fight, the grit. It will be an exciting time for us when we get home."

Giants: Bumgarner the obvious choice
Bumgarner already has tons of postseason experience even though he just turned 25 on Aug. 1. The southpaw set career-high marks in wins (18) and strikeouts (219) and pitched to a 2.98 ERA and was at his best on the road, with an 11-4 record and a 2.22 ERA in 18 starts away from AT&T Park.

"When the guy takes the ball, there's that feeling that we're going to win," Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "As a pitcher, that's one of the best feelings you can have. I've had it here in the past where you can tell when you walk in the room that the guys are excited that you're on the mound that day. For me, the thing that stands out the most is the energy the team has when he takes the mound."

The Giants will hope that Bumgarner pitches better against the Pirates than he did in his lone start against Pittsburgh this season. In that outing, on July 28, he gave up five earned runs on six hits in four innings.

• Since being moved to the bullpen on August 23, Tim Lincecum has made seven appearances, allowing eight runs (seven earned) on 11 hits in 10 1/3 innings (6.10 ERA). Lincecum has made 14 relief appearances in his career, with six of those in the postseason.

• Bumgarner's only career start at PNC Park came in 2011, and he struck out seven while allowing one run on five hits in six innings.

Pirates: Just like 2013?
One of the most lasting images of last year's postseason was the incredible scene at PNC Park for the NL Wild Card Game between the Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.

The Pirates hadn't made it to October since 1992, and the crowd was ready for the return to the Steel City. A "Blackout" was in effect, with the largest paid crowd (40,487) to ever see a game at the ballpark largely clad in black and boisterously rooting on a scintillating 6-2 win over the Reds. The Pirates will be expecting more of the same on Wednesday with another huge home-field advantage.

"I think it's going to be black, it's going to be crazy, and it's going to be a whole lot of fun," Hurdle said.

• Volquez has been magnificent of late, compiling a 1.78 ERA over his last 12 starts and finishing the season with a scoreless streak of 18 innings. At home, he has allowed four earned runs in his last five starts, across 34 2/3 innings, although he is winless in nine starts against the Giants since beating them twice in 2008.

"I'd love to pitch that game," Volquez said. "It's what I've been talking about since early in Spring Training, hoping to get a chance like this."

• Outfielder Starling Marte went 1-for-4 on Sunday to extend his hitting streak to 13 games, a career-high total. During Marte's current 13-game streak, which will continue on Opening Day of 2015, he is hitting .340 (18-for-53) with three doubles, two home runs and six RBIs.

Worth noting
• The Giants have won 38 of their last 41 games in which they have scored at least four runs. San Francisco is 72-13 (.847) overall in such games.

• The Pirates posted a 51-30 record at PNC Park this season, which was tied with the Cardinals for the best home record among all NL teams. The only team in the Majors to boast a better record at home turf this season was the Angels (52-29). The 51 home wins by the Pirates is the most ever at PNC Park.

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Position-by-position breakdown for Giants-Pirates

Position-by-position breakdown for Giants-Pirates

It's often said that experience plays a pivotal role come October. This year's National League Wild Card Game (Wednesday night at 8:07 ET) between the Giants and Pirates presents an interesting twist on that traditional concept.

The Giants' roster has a number of players who were part of the club's World Series title runs in both 2010 and '12. That said, those players never had to win a one-game playoff, though the Giants did win do-or-die games in the 2012 NL Division Series and NL Championship Series.


As for the Pirates, they were in this exact situation just one year ago. Pittsburgh won the inaugural NL Wild Card Game -- with some of its current players leading the way -- in a raucous atmosphere at PNC Park last year.

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Though the Pirates were hoping to win the NL Central and avoid another Wild Card Game this time around, their fate was ultimately sealed with a loss on the final day of the regular season. Their consolation prize for finishing 88-74 is a one-game playoff against the Giants, who finished with an identical 88-74 record. The Pirates get to host the game by virtue of winning four of the six regular-season meetings.

Plenty has changed since the clubs last met on July 30, however, so let's take a look at how these teams currently stack up, position by position.

Russell Martin may have been the star of the Wild Card Game a year ago, going 3-for-4 with a pair of homers in Pittsburgh's victory over the Reds, but the Giants still have former MVP Buster Posey behind the plate. Posey put up a solid .311/.364/.490 slash line to go with 22 homers and 89 RBIs in the regular season. Not only does Posey enter Wednesday's game red-hot after hitting .393 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in September, he's 5-for-9 lifetime against Pirates starter Edinson Volquez. Advantage: Giants

A healthy Brandon Belt could be a difference-maker for the Giants this October. Coming off a breakout season of sorts in 2013, Belt was limited to just 61 games this year due to three stints on the disabled list. He returned on Sept. 17 and seems to be getting hot at the right time, turning in three multihit games over his final six, going 8-for-21 (.381) with a homer in that span. Gaby Sanchez will get the start for the Pirates with lefty Madison Bumgarner on the mound -- not to mention Ike Davis has been battling flu-like symptoms. Advantage: Giants

This may be one of the most intriguing matchups in this game. In a battle of experience versus youth, the Pirates have veteran Neil Walker at second base, while the Giants counter with breakout rookie Joe Panik. Walker, who hit a career-high 23 homers this year, went 2-for-5 in the Wild Card Game a year ago before going 0-for-19 in the Pirates' loss to the Cardinals in the NLDS. As for Panik, he burst onto the scene, hitting .305 over 73 games -- including .327 after the All-Star break -- in his debut season. This one could truly go either way, but experience wins out over a rookie making his postseason debut in a Wild Card Game on the road. Advantage: Pirates

The hot corner in this matchup boasts a couple of star players, though they appear to be trending in opposite directions. Josh Harrison's breakout year, which included his first All-Star appearance, was one of the keys to the Pirates' season. The runner-up for the NL batting title, Harrison hit .315, including a combined .342 in August and September. As for Pablo Sandoval, the two-time All-Star hit just .218 in September and could potentially be playing his final game with the Giants. Advantage: Pirates

There isn't a whole lot that separates Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford and Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer. The two have played nearly identical seasons on both sides of the ball -- and both sides of the All-Star break. Crawford finished the year with a .246/.324/.389 slash line compared to Mercer's .255/.305/.387 line, with both players settling in nicely as the year went on. Even the defensive metrics for the two are nearly identical. Advantage: Push

The injuries to Michael Morse and Angel Pagan caused the Giants to do some shuffling with their outfield down the stretch. Those injuries will result in Travis Ishikawa, who began the season in a first-base platoon on the Pirates, as the Giants' starting left fielder in the Wild Card Game. It'll be just his fourth start in left field all year. The Pirates, meanwhile, will counter with the well-rounded Starling Marte in left field. Marte was one of just three players this year to hit 10 or more home runs and swipe at least 30 bases, joining Carlos Gomez and Jacoby Ellsbury. Advantage: Pirates

Pagan's absence certainly impacts this matchup, though it's one the Pirates would win either way. Andrew McCutchen, the defending NL MVP, was every bit as good, if not even better, this year for the Pirates. He posted a Major League-best .410 on-base percentage to go along with 25 home runs, 38 doubles, 83 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. The Giants will start Gregor Blanco, who may be tasked with setting the table at the top of the order in Pagan's absence. Advantage: Pirates

Along with continuing to be one of the Giants' emotional leaders on and off the field, Hunter Pence did something this year that no other player in the Majors accomplished: The three-time All-Star was the only big leaguer to hit at least 20 home runs and doubles, as well as 10 or more triples. The durable Pence also played in all 162 games for the second straight year. Travis Snider has done a respectable job since entering the starting lineup, though he spent much of the year as one of the Pirates' top pinch-hitting options off the bench. Advantage: Giants

Davis' health could play a pivotal role in this game. He's been battling flu-like symptoms the past few days, though he would not have been in the starting lineup against a left-hander anyway. That said, if he's able to make a late-game pinch-hitting appearance, he's capable of changing the game with one swing of the bat. No team racked up more pinch-hit RBIs this year than the Pirates' 43, though 21 of those came from Sanchez and Snider, who are both expected to start on Wednesday. The injuries to Pagan and Morse, meanwhile, have forced some of the Giants' top bench options into the starting lineup in recent weeks. Advantage: Pirates

One of the most-talked about topics surrounding this game is the Pirates' decision to start ace Gerrit Cole in Sunday's regular-season finale instead of saving him for Wednesday's Wild Card Game. That leaves Volquez -- just one year removed from posting a Major League-worst 5.71 ERA -- to start the Wild Card Game. Volquez, however, has been an entirely different pitcher this year, finishing with a 3.04 ERA and going 5-0 with a 1.63 ERA over the final two months. That said, the Giants are still turning to their ace Bumgarner, who went 18-10 with a 2.98 ERA, including 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA on the road. Advantage: Giants

Both clubs have found stability after undergoing midseason changes to their bullpen hierarchy. The Giants removed Sergio Romo from the closer's role, which proved to be a turning point in Romo's season. He's posted a 2.10 ERA in 30 appearances since the change, after struggling to a 5.01 ERA in his first 34 outings. That said, Tony Watson has been incredible all year for the Pirates, tallying 10 wins while posting a 1.63 ERA in 78 appearances. The Pirates have a 2.80 team bullpen ERA since Aug. 1, while the Giants have a 3.98 ERA in that span. Advantage: Pirates

Both Mark Melancon and Santiago Casilla have done a remarkable job after being thrust into the closer's role midseason. Melancon took over for struggling closer Jason Grilli in early May, while Casilla replaced Romo at the end of June. Melancon excelled on his way to 33 saves, while also allowing just four earned runs over 40 1/3 innings at PNC Park this year -- good for a 0.89 home ERA. Casilla notched 19 saves to go with a 1.70 ERA, but has a 3.06 ERA since Aug. 1. Melancon has a 1.48 ERA in that same span. Advantage: Pirates

Paul Casella is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Voting underway to decide Hank Aaron Awards

Help decide this season's top offensive performer in each league

Voting underway to decide Hank Aaron Awards

Voting is underway through Sunday exclusively at to help decide the 16th annual winners of the Hank Aaron Award, given by "The Hammer" himself during the upcoming 110th World Series to the outstanding offensive performer in each league.

American League nominees include Nelson Cruz of Baltimore, David Ortiz of Boston, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Michael Brantley of Cleveland, Victor Martinez of Detroit, Jose Altuve of Houston, Alex Gordon of Kansas City, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Trevor Plouffe of Minnesota, Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees, Josh Donaldson of Oakland, Robinson Cano of Seattle, Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay, Adrian Beltre of Texas and Jose Bautista of Toronto.


National League candidates include Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona, Justin Upton of Atlanta, Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs, Devin Mesoraco of Cincinnati, Justin Morneau of Colorado, Adrian Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Giancarlo Stanton of Miami, Jonathan Lucroy of Milwaukee, Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets, Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh, Matt Carpenter of St. Louis, Seth Smith of San Diego, Hunter Pence of San Francisco and Anthony Rendon of Washington.

Goldschmidt is going after his second straight Hank Aaron Award, having been the NL choice last year for the first time. Miguel Cabrera was the AL recipient each of the past two years, but V-Mart's nomination by Detroit means an end to that streak.

"As one of the game's most talented and respected players ever, it is appropriate that Major League Baseball recognizes the top offensive performers in each league with an award named in honor of Hank Aaron," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Each of the nominees should be applauded for their outstanding seasons, which will make selecting just one winner in each league a difficult task for Hank, our Hall of Fame panel and our participating fans."

"I am honored to have my name on the award given by Major League Baseball to the top offensive performers in the game," Aaron said. "Each of the nominees is talented and deserving, which makes me grateful to have the assistance of my fellow Hall of Famers and the fans to help select the winners."

For the fifth consecutive year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award, which is officially sanctioned by MLB and has recognized the top offensive threat in each league since it was established in 1999.

The panel includes some of the greatest offensive players of all-time -- Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas and Robin Yount. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 16,956 hits, 8,844 RBIs and 2,109 home runs -- have been personally selected by Aaron to lend their expertise to select the best offensive performer in each league.

Do you go with a masher, like Stanton or Cruz? Or do you recognize a guy like Altuve, who led the Majors in batting average and led the AL in stolen bases? Home run kings often fare well in this process, but Chris Davis (53 homers) was trumped last year by Cabrera. And what about Trout, often referred to as the game's best player?

Past winners of the Hank Aaron Award include Cabrera and Goldschmidt (2013); Cabrera and Buster Posey (2012); Bautista and Matt Kemp (2011); Bautista and Joey Votto (2010); Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols (2009); Aramis Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis (2008); Rodriguez and Prince Fielder (2007); Jeter and Ryan Howard (2006); Ortiz and Andruw Jones (2005); Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds (2004); Rodriguez and Pujols (2003); Rodriguez and Bonds (2001-02); Carlos Delgado and Todd Helton (2000) and Ramirez and Sammy Sosa (1999).

The award was introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. At that time, it was the first major award introduced by MLB in more than 25 years.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Banister interviews, doesn't get Astros job

Banister interviews, doesn't get Astros job

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister, a finalist for the Houston managerial job that went to A.J. Hinch on Monday, thanked the Astros organization for the opportunity to realize dream job No. 2. But Banister was also grateful to still have dream job No. 1.

"Am I disappointed I didn't get that opportunity? Absolutely," Banister said a couple hours before the Astros formally introduced Hinch. "But I still have the best job in baseball. I get to show up tomorrow, put on the black and gold and prepare for a playoff game against the San Francisco Giants."


Banister, a Houston native who lives about 20 minutes from Minute Maid Park, had been informed on Sunday of the Astros' decision.

"It would've been a great opportunity to manage the team that was my Major League team [as a fan] until I became a Pirate, and awesome for my family, but I'm happy to be with a group and an organization I absolutely love," Banister said. "This is also my family."

That feeling is obviously mutual. General manager Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and others voiced their passionate support for Banister to Houston officials as he went through two rounds of interviews.

"That was humbling and overwhelming," Banister said. "And emotional -- but that's the culture we've created here. It makes me proud that I've reached and touched people around me.

"Houston treated me with class and integrity, and gave me an opportunity to speak about their position. I thank them for that."

A member of the Pirates organization for more than two decades in a variety of roles, Banister interviewed four years ago with the club for the job that went to Hurdle. The interview with Houston was his first outside the organization.

It should not be the last. The Twins dismissed manager Ron Gardenhire on Monday, and other vacancies could be upcoming.

"I never chase a position," Banister said. "If you're good enough and are recognized, people will find you.

"I'd love to be a candidate to manage if other opportunities present themselves. The greatest compliment I could pay to the Pittsburgh family, the people who taught me, is to take what we have done here and put it to use in another organization. If someone asked me to interview for their job, it would be the ultimate compliment to Clint and to Neal and to [club president Frank Coonelly] and to [club chairman Bob Nutting]. To take what we have created here and apply it elsewhere."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Three keys for Bucs in Wild Card Game vs. Giants

Three keys for Bucs in Wild Card Game vs. Giants

PITTSBURGH -- Even though it wasn't confirmed until the final out of the final game, the Pirates for a long time had the sense of being on a Wild Card collision course with the Giants. So they've had ample chance to get comfortable with the idea of handling this obstacle into the National League Division Series.

Comfortable, indeed, is how they feel. Having the game in PNC Park adds to their confidence, but isn't the lone reason. The Bucs have matched up well with the Giants in the team's current configurations -- 14-11 during the Clint Hurdle era -- wherever they've played.


Being veterans of Wild Card urgency -- the Bucs are the first team to make a repeat appearance in the three-year-old format -- is a slight advantage. However, the circumstances this time are dramatically different from those of a year ago: In 2013, the Wild Card Game against the Reds was a unique extension of the teams' season-ending three-game series; this time, they confront a team they have not seen since July.

Win-it-all baseball games have a myriad of twists, turns, variables. For the Bucs, there are three primary keys that can unlock the door to the NLDS.

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1. Edinson Volquez must remain in control

That applies to himself, as well as to his pitches. The veteran right-hander has traveled a remarkable road. Early in Spring Training, fans wanted to run him out of town even before he got here. Now they applaud giving him the ball in the biggest game.

Besides all the mechanical adjustments that go into such a dramatic turnaround -- in 2013, Volquez ranked last among all Major League starters with a 5.71 ERA -- Volquez has also conquered the excitability that made him vulnerable to big innings.

He has never had a bigger reason for emotions to get the best of him than he will Wednesday night. He must keep that slow heartbeat Hurdle always talks about.

2. The Pirates must handle Bumgarner

And we aren't even talking mound -- that's obvious -- but bat. The Bucs have recently suffered from an odd syndrome of giving up big hits to weak-hitting pitchers -- Johnny Cueto's game-winning single Sunday was only the latest example -- and now come across a legitimate swinger.

This is not an idle threat. Pirates pitchers have been challenged by deeper lineups that have a better chance of being turned around. While it may not be a perfect analogy, they were 3-7 in Interleague road games, against DH-rigged teams.

3. Pirates: Pride, Passion ... Pandemonium

Last year's Blacked-out crowd unquestionably helped beat the Reds -- just look at what Cueto has done to the Pirates before and since that memorable scene.

San Francisco does not know what it is in for. Buccos Nation will again offer the biggest home-field edge imaginable in baseball, and could erect a wall of noise not even Giants are big enough to scale.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Cole's 12 K's not enough as Pirates fall to Reds

Pittsburgh to host NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday vs. Giants

Cole's 12 K's not enough as Pirates fall to Reds

CINCINNATI -- As consolations go, this is not bad. The Pirates did the noble thing Sunday, going with their best. And when that did not pan out, they were sent to play their first postseason game in a park where they won more games than ever before.

The Gerrit Cole Gambit did not work as the Pirates fell to the Reds, 4-1, as Johnny Cueto won his 20th -- literally, his RBI single off Tony Watson in the eighth snapping a 1-1 tie.


"Unfortunately, this simplifies things for us," said Neil Walker, who got two of the six hits off Cueto, including the only one that counted, a fourth-inning home run. "We can put our focus toward Wednesday."

With the outcome of the Cardinals' later game in Arizona rendered moot and a Monday tiebreaker for the National League Central title no longer in the works, the Bucs turned to Wednesday night's 8:07 p.m. ET NL Wild Card Game against the Giants in PNC Park -- where they had a 51-30 regular-season record.

"Now we know where we are," said Clint Hurdle, the chipper manager. "We'll go home, work out Tuesday and be ready to fight again."

For all the buzz and counter-buzz about letting Cole take his regular turn on Sunday with the Wild Card Game looming, the resolution found Watson on the mound at the start of the eighth.

Jason Bourgeois led off with a triple. With one out, Cueto -- clearly allowed to bat by Cincinnati manager Bryan Price in that situation for the best chance at getting the 20th win -- bounced a run-scoring single through the drawn-in infield.

Cueto's hit was preceded by the latest of third baseman Josh Harrison's borderline amazing plays of the day -- this time, diving to his left to snare Zack Cozart's liner. Then the pitcher improved his .122 average.

"You've heard it plenty of times: Baseball is a funny game," Harrison said. "We're out there trying to make all the plays, then Cueto just finds a hole."

It came as great relief to Price, who appreciated how outlandish it was to let Cueto bat.

"The Cardinals are watching the game going, 'What's this idiot doing?' Runner at third and one out," Price recreated. "Cozart hits an absolute missile and the Harrison kid makes another great play at third, because that would have answered that. The situation was like, 'Hey, you know what? The most important guy for me today was Johnny Cueto getting a chance at 20.' And we could ... not score that run and forfeit the opportunity for Johnny to survive and pitch the ninth and maybe still win 20."

Kristopher Negron's ensuing two-run homer off Justin Wilson took the drama out of closer Aroldis Chapman's appearance.

Was Cole up for a start that was widely debated? He gave up a run on his first out of the game, then spaced two hits across the rest of his seven innings, during which he struck out 12 without issuing a walk. Cole retired 21 of the last 23 men he faced, and, across his last two outings, he has an ongoing streak of 37 of 41 men retired.

"I tried to match [Cueto] as long as I could," Cole said. "I thought we battled, never thought we were really out of the game. We did the best we could."

It was a classic staredown between the high-profile starting pitchers.

Cole blinked in the first, letting two leadoff singles set up a run, then pried his eyes open.

"I fell behind the eight-ball in the first. Two singles burned us," Cole said.

Cueto blinked in the fourth, when Walker took him into the right-field seats for his 23rd homer.

"When Walker caught us back up, I tried to match [Cueto] as long as I could," Cole said. "I tried to give the team a chance to win, the best and longest I could."

Negron and Brandon Phillips led off the first with singles, and it turned into a run on Todd Frazier's high-chopped grounder to third.

As he had in his last start, when he retired the last 17 Atlanta Braves he faced, Cole began mowing them down following another single by Negron with one out in the third.

"Wasn't he good?" Hurdle posed the rhetorical question, eyes sparkling. "It's fun to watch him as he continues to just grow."

While it might have been even more fun to watch Cole grow in the Wild Card Game, the Bucs embraced the opportunity he had given them on Sunday.

"We didn't come in today saying, 'Let's not throw Cole.' Regardless of what outsiders might think," Harrison said, "we came in today wanting to win the division, and Cole starting gave us a great chance."

The Pirates hoped to have to sit around a few hours after the conclusion of their game, while the Cardinals decided their destination. Instead, they quickly packed up and headed home.

On their way off the field and from the dugout into the clubhouse, the players walked through their manager's handshake and "Like the fight!" exhortations.

"I like our team," Hurdle said. "I do like the fight, the grit. It will be an exciting time for us when we get home."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Huntington holds court about Bucs' chances in Q&A

Huntington holds court about Bucs' chances in Q&A

Neal Huntington has made it to the right side of the ledger.

Through the early years of his tenure as the Pirates' general manager, Huntington volunteered for baseball masochism. He worked below the surface, making moves and decisions maddeningly not reflected in neither the team's record nor in its direction.


While Huntington dropped buzzwords like "process" and "plans," the Bucs kept dropping games. In his first four years on the job, the losses grew -- from 94 to 95 to 99 to 105. A frustrated fan base was getting restless.

Then the process kicked in. The wins mounted, from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 to … the 2014 Pirates won't continue that pattern, but a second straight postseason appearance should make up for that.

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During the Pirates' stay in Atlanta in the last week of the regular season, there were three significant developments: The Braves dismissed their GM, Frank Wren, for not being able to maneuver the team to its fourth postseason appearance in five years; the Bucs clinched a playoff berth; and Huntington marked the seventh anniversary of his hiring on Sept. 25, the day he sat down with for a reflective Q&A. Last year was such a monumental breakthrough for the team. This year validated one of your mandates, sustained competitiveness. Does that make this repeat more meaningful?

Huntington: To be able to repeat a postseason appearance is a great sign for the organization and for our fan base. We still want to get deeper in the playoffs so, while it is a good step, it's certainly not the last step. In your view, what would make for a successful season, even while acknowledging that the ultimate goal of any team is to win the World Series?

Huntington: That's about it. A good season is one that ends with a parade in downtown. A year ago, you were aggressive in making in-season moves, such as the end-of-August acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. This time around, the opposite -- trusting your judgment that the in-house talent was good enough. Which takeaway is more rewarding?

Huntington: That's really tough to answer. We've had guys step up. This July 31 (non-waiver Trade Deadline) we wanted to, we were willing to, give up prospects as we did last August. We worked hard to find the right deal, large and small, and we couldn't find the right impact coming in the door to match the impact that would've been going out the door. We also liked the opportunities with guys coming up from Triple-A, or guys getting healthy, or guys showing signs of taking steps forward, so we didn't feel like we had as big a need as a year ago.

As crazy as that sounds, a team that was on its way to winning 90 games vs. a team fighting for its playoff life, we felt we had a nice balanced lineup. We felt we had the players to put us in the position we are today. The Gregory Polanco experience. The first couple of months, I'm sure you were aware of everyone clamoring for you to get him here already. You held out for specific reasons, waiting for the right time. In retrospect, your beliefs have been validated. He has struggled and hasn't even played the last six weeks.

Huntington: I wish ... had Neil Walker stayed healthy (Josh Harrison had to take over at second in mid-June, creating a vacancy in right field) we would've led Gregory continue to develop. There's a reason why that Triple-A level exists, why most guys who have had success at the Major League level have experienced Triple-A beyond 250 at-bats. We've certainly experienced that -- had Walker not gotten hurt, Polanco might have had a smoother transition. There are valuable lessons to learn, and he was just on the front edge of learning them when we brought him up.

I hated doing it. I really did. But we felt like he was borderline ready. How much do postseason matchups matter? The team you wind up playing -- how much can that influence your prospects?

Huntington: Certainly, there are teams on paper you match up better with. But in a short series, man, it's just about going out and executing. Sometimes the better teams win, but sometimes they don't. Just to have the opportunity to get there is great, but the challenge to advance through it is even better. Is the postseason just buying you time before you have to dive into what figures to be a very difficult offseason, with a lot of big decisions awaiting?

Huntington: The guys in the clubhouse, their focus needs to be on winning and advancing deep ... but we've already begun the process of preparing for 2015 and beyond. I don't know if it delays anything from our standpoint ... it may delay our ability to execute plans. We hope the offseason begins as late as possible.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less Columnist

Jim Callis

Constructing a winner: Pirates

How Pittsburgh used the Draft, trades, free agency and international signings to build its playoff team

Constructing a winner: Pirates

When Neal Huntington took over as Pirates general manager in September 2007, the big league club was finishing its 15th consecutive losing season, one shy of the record for a North American sport franchise, and the farm system had bottomed out. Things would get worse before they got better.

The Pirates lost increasingly more games in each of Huntington's first three seasons, suffering 105 defeats in 2010. They occupied first place in the National League Central in late July of 2011, only to drop 43 of their final 62 games. In 2012, they held the Wild Card lead in early August but finished 16-36 for their 20th straight sub-.500 season.


"We knew coming in that it wasn't going to be easy," Huntington said. "We knew we had a series of challenges, and we might have created some of our own challenges along the way. We've worked very hard to add to our roster in any way. We've been open to make ourselves better in any way possible."

Mission accomplished. By mining several different avenues to acquire talent, the Pirates have become just one of four clubs to reach the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

Player, how acquired, year:
Neil Walker, Draft, 2004 (1st round)
Andrew McCutchen, Draft, 2005 (1st round)
Jared Hughes, Draft, 2006 (4th round)
Starling Marte, Int'l sign, 2007
Tony Watson, Draft, 2007 (9th round)
Jordy Mercer, Draft, 2008 (3rd round)
Justin Wilson, Draft, 2008 (5th round)
Gregory Polanco, Int'l sign, 2009
Gerrit Cole, Draft, 2011 (1st round)

Pittsburgh did have three building blocks in its farm system when Huntington arrived. The Pirates had selected Neil Walker and future NL MVP Andrew McCutchen with the 11th overall pick in the 2005 and 2006 First-Year Player Drafts, and signed Starling Marte out of the Dominican Republic in January 2007.

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Nevertheless, the Pirates' record and investments in the Draft and in Latin America were spotty. That changed under owner Bob Nutting, who took control of the club in January 2007.

Under the 2007-11 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allowed teams to spend freely on the Draft before restrictions were instituted in the current CBA, no club topped Pittsburgh's $52 million in bonuses. That included $48 million in four years under the leadership of team president Frank Coonelly and Huntington. Nutting also signed off on a new $5 million complex in the Dominican.

"We were able to work with virtually unmatched resources in our first four years here," Huntington said. "In our eyes, we were trying to get two Drafts a year, two first-rounders, two second-rounders, two third-rounders and so on. Because of the dollars Bob allowed us to invest, to double down on the Draft and triple our investment in the international market, we were able to accrue talent."

Those investments already are starting to pay off. Signed for a Draft-record $8 million bonus as the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, Gerrit Cole has been a key part of the rotation on both playoff clubs. Pedro Alvarez, who leads Pittsburgh in homers over the last two seasons, signed a $6.355 million big league contract as the No. 2 overall selection in 2008 (though he may miss the playoffs with a stress reaction in his left foot).

The Pirates also have found contributors with more modest bonuses. Tony Watson, who ranked second in the Majors in holds this season, got $85,000 as a ninth-rounder in 2007. A year later, the club found its eventual shortstop in third-rounder Jordy Mercer, who cost $508,000.

A bigger bargain came on the international front with Gregory Polanco, who signed for $150,000 out of the Dominican in 2009. The top rookie on the 2014 Pirates, he's also one of baseball's most talented young players.

Player, year, acquired from:
Jeff Locke, 2009, Braves
Josh Harrison, 2009, Cubs
Andrew Lambo, 2010, Dodgers
Travis Snider, 2012, Blue Jays
Gaby Sanchez, 2012, Marlins
Mark Melancon, 2012, Red Sox
Jeanmar Gomez, 2013, Indians
Chris Stewart, 2013, Yankees
Ike Davis, 2014, Mets
Vance Worley, 2014, Twins
John Axford, 2014, Indians*
*Acquired via Waivers

Huntington's first major trade as GM came at the July 2008 Deadline and drew almost universal criticism. He turned his best big league asset, Jason Bay, into Craig Hansen, Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris and Brandon Moss in a three-team deal with the Dodgers and Red Sox. Three weeks later, Huntington swapped Jose Bautista to the Blue Jays for Robinzon Diaz.

Six years later, Huntington's record of wheeling and dealing looks a lot better. Eleven members of Pittsburgh's playoff roster were acquired from other teams, and the best current player or prospect that Huntington gave up in any of those transactions was Brock Holt.

Five years before he made a run at the NL batting title, Josh Harrison was generally regarded as an undersized free swinger without a definite defensive home. But Pirates scouts saw more in him, and the team grabbed him as part of a July 2009 trade that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Cubs.

Shipping Nate McLouth to the Braves in June 2009 netted two starters, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton (who's out for the rest of the year with a sports hernia). Closer Mark Melancon came from Boston in December 2012 in a six-player deal that cost Pittsburgh Holt and Joel Hanrahan.

While all of these moves make Huntington look good, he says they're the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of different people.

"I cannot give enough credit to our scouts and the guys in our office who run our analytics and our coaching staff," Huntington said. "They've been able to identify guys on other teams who can help us, and after we get them, our coaching staff has identified what they've needed to do to be successful. It's quite an awesome feeling as a general manager."

Player, year:
Clint Barmes, 2011
Russell Martin, 2012
Francisco Liriano, 2013
Edinson Volquez, 2013
John Holdzkom, 2014

The Pirates' success has come with a limited Major League payroll. Pittsburgh ranked 25th among the 30 clubs at $74.6 million at the end of 2013 and 27th at $78.1 million on Opening Day 2014. Yet they've been able to make some successful forays into the free-agent market, which Huntington also credits to his scouts and analysts and coaches.

Russell Martin will earn MVP votes this year, the final season on a two-year, $17 million deal. Francisco Liriano has given the Pirates two years of quality rotation work on a contract that initially guaranteed him just $1 million and will pay him $12.75 million. After signing a one-year, $5 million deal last December, Edinson Volquez has responded with his best season since he was an All-Star in 2008.

Jim Callis is a reporter for and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Five things that changed Pirates' season

Five things that changed Pirates' season

ATLANTA -- The Pirates began the 2014 season bouncing in first gear on a cobblestone road that led to a dead end. They are ending it in overdrive on the National League autobahn.

Their five speed-changing gears in between:


Josh Harrison unchained

Question most often heard in National League press boxes: "Where did Harrison come from?" Answer: "The shadows cast on the Bucs' bench."

Through Harrison's first three-plus seasons with the Pirates, team brass clearly considered him a useful but flawed player. He bounced all around, including Indianapolis. In 2011-2013, Harrison had 575 plate appearances in the Majors -- and 550 in the Minors.

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In mid-May, outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata both suffered leg injuries in the same game. Then second baseman Neil Walker had an appendectomy. When Pedro Alvarez's arm went haywire, Harrison dropped anchor at third. He still energized the Bucs, but rather than occasionally off the bench, did so regularly in the lineup.

Locke, Worley to the rescue

Through May, the Pirates had played 55 games, and their starting pitchers had eight wins. Then it got worse: the disabled list called Gerrit Cole (sore shoulder) and Francisco Liriano (left oblique).

In response, the Bucs called Jeff Locke and Vance Worley, two insurance policies in the Indianapolis bureau. They not only bought time for the recoveries of the two aces, but ripped off consistent, solid starts, providing a bridge over a very rough patch.

Locke made Wandy Rodriguez (remember him?) forgettable. Worley became a permanent fixture when a sports hernia unplugged another veteran, Charlie Morton.

Mark Melancon gets his turn, case closed

The loss of an All-Star closer has ruined the hopes of numerous contenders through the years. The Pirates were cowering from the same fate when injury, then ineffectiveness, curbed Jason Grilli.

Thanks to a forethoughtful move made 17 months earlier by general manager Neal Huntington, the Bucs had a Plan B: Mark Melancon, who had closed for the Astros in 2011 -- and for the Pirates in 2013 through another Grilli injury -- stepped in and stepped up.

Even after having spent two months of the season in a setup role, Melancon has rallied into the NL's Top 10 with 30-plus saves.

Pinch me, is this for real?

Upgrading a bench isn't sexy, but bolstering their reserve talent was one of the Pirates' top priorities. It is also an NL mandate, given double-switches. The Bucs didn't change any of the faces during the offseason -- but incumbents Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez changed their workout routines and showed up ready to roll.

The late-April acquisition of Ike Davis from the Mets completed a Holy Trinity. The Pirates by far lead the Majors in pinch-hit RBIs, with these three having provided the bulk of the production. They have been a major component of the team's comeback persona.

It's not how you start ...

Jordy Mercer, by the challenge of transitioning to full-time play, and Marte, by injury and personal issues, weighed down the lineup through the first two months of the season. The shortstop entered June hitting .199, the left fielder only a little better at .246.

Then Mercer got comfortable, Marte got healthy, both got hot, and the holes in the Pirates' connect-the-dots offense were darned. From the All-Star Game on, Mercer ranked among best offensive shortstops, and Marte's OPS was among the highest in all of baseball.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Stewart day to day with sore left wrist

Stewart day to day with sore left wrist

CINCINNATI -- Johnny Cueto's game-winning hit Sunday hurt Tony Watson, the pitcher who gave it up, but it hurt Chris Stewart even more.

The Pittsburgh catcher was knocked flat with intense pain after Cueto's thrown bat caught him flush on his left wrist.


"It got all wrist, not too much padding," Stewart said after X-rays had come back negative. "So it's not broken, just feels really weak. When it happened, I couldn't really move it around too much."

Stewart tried to shrug off the case of injury being added to the insult of a .122-hitting pitcher delivering an eighth-inning game-winning hit.

Asked if it was avoidable, Stewart said, "Well, he could've held onto the bat."

"I don't think when he let go of the bat he knew he was going to hit me, so it wasn't on purpose," Stewart added. "He's not used to hitting all that often, and not used to the results of something like that happening, so it's just unfortunate."

With Russell Martin sidelined by a sore left hamstring, Tony Sanchez caught the game's final two outs -- his first action behind the plate with the Bucs since May 21.

Stewart hoped to be good to go by Wednesday's 8:07 p.m. ET National League Wild Card Game against San Francisco.

"It doesn't feel horrible," he said. "I can move it around a little bit right now. I've got a couple of days, so hopefully it will clear up."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Martin out of lineup with sore hamstring

Martin out of lineup with sore hamstring

CINCINNATI -- The Pirates waved the white flag in the daily struggle with Russell Martin's balky left hamstring.

The catcher wasn't even expected to suit up for Saturday's game, after being forced out late Friday when the tightness became a bit too worrisome. Chris Stewart replaced him in the starting lineup.


"Today, he is definitely out," manager Clint Hurdle said on Saturday of Martin, who was out of the lineup for Sunday's finale as well. "It's been a day-to-day thing. There have been stretches when it's been good, and situations where it's become aggravated."

Martin was again replaced by Stewart on Sunday.

Worth noting

• Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte all entered Saturday's game ranked in the NL's Top 10 in hitting. The Pirates have not had a trio finish in the Top 10 in batting average since 1969, when Roberto Clemente was No. 2 at .345 and was followed by Matty Alou (fourth at .331) and Willie Stargell (eighth at .307).

• Pittsburgh pitching had allowed a total of 19 runs in the 12 games prior to Saturday -- the team's stingiest 12-game run since 1968, when it also gave up 19 runs from Sept. 13-24. The oddity about that '68 stretch is that nine of the runs came in one game, a loss to the Reds.

• Harrison (a career and team season-high 15 games) and Marte (12 games) both extended hitting streaks Saturday. Harrison also tied McCutchen for the team lead with his 38th double.

• Saturday's loss was the Bucs' 18th in the opponent's final at-bat; they have 21 final at-bat wins.

• Looking on the Cincinnati side, the Reds' 10-6 win ended a streak of 45 losses -- dating back to Aug. 23, 2013 -- when allowing six-plus runs.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Following review, out call at home stands

Following review, out call at home stands

CINCINNATI -- A crew chief review of a play at the plate on Saturday went against the Reds in the first inning vs. the Pirates.

With one out and a 3-0 Reds lead, Ryan Ludwick grounded to shortstop Jordy Mercer. Running from third base, Devin Mesoraco tried to score and tried to make a head-first reach for the plate around catcher Chris Stewart.


Mesoraco rolled around Stewart as he was tagged but collided into the legs of home-plate umpire and crew chief Jim Joyce, who called him out. Manager Bryan Price disputed the call and a crew chief review of whether Stewart violated plate blocking rule 7.13 commenced.

After the review, it was decided that Joyce's call stands.

Reds trainer Paul Lessard also looked over Joyce for several moments before the veteran umpire was able to continue.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Following surgery, Morton likely to miss start of next season

Following surgery, Morton likely to miss start of next season

CINCINNATI -- Charlie Morton underwent his anticipated right hip surgery on Friday, and he is likely to miss the start of the 2015 season.

Dr. Thomas Byrd of Nashville, Tenn., the same surgeon who operated on Morton's left hip three years ago, performed Friday's procedure to repair the labrum in his right hip.


At the long end of the estimated six-to-eight month recovery period for such a procedure, Morton's rehab would keep the right-hander sidelined until the end of May. Following the Oct. 11, 2011, procedure on his left hip, Morton was able to merge into the Pirates' rotation by the second week of the '12 season.

Morton had been bothered by inflammation in the hip -- alternately diagnosed as a sports hernia -- since early June, although he continued to take his regular turns in the rotation until the condition began to affect his performance in mid-August.

Morton attempted a mid-September comeback, pitching five shutout innings in a 4-0 victory over Boston on Sept. 16. His discomfort subsequently worsened, and he was ruled out for the rest of the year. The Pirates placed him on the 60-day disabled list on Wednesday, which cleared a spot on their 40-man roster.

The 2014 season was the first on the three-year, $21 million contract agreed to last winter between the Bucs and Morton.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Hurdle won't rush to name Wild Card Game starter

While Giants tab Bumgarner, Pirates could still play tiebreaker Monday for Central title

Hurdle won't rush to name Wild Card Game starter

CINCINNATI -- Madison Bumgarner versus Jeff Locke in the National League Wild Card Game on Wednesday?

It is the peak of hypothetical musings, but based on the different last-weekend opportunities being faced by the Pirates and the Giants, it could come to pass.


San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy nominated Bumgarner as his NL Wild Card starter as soon as the Giants clinched the spot. Bochy went as far as to say he would not pitch Bumgarner on the regular season's last day even if home-field advantage for the NL Wild Card Game had yet to be determined.

"You got to realize they're in a different position than we're in right now," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, referencing his club's hopes of yet claiming the National League Central title. "We'll continue to evaluate day by day to make the best decision we feel we can make for our club.

"To skip somebody [in the rotation] ... that's just great conversation now."

One-game behind the division-leading Cardinals entering the weekend, the Pirates are lined up to start Vance Worley, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole against the Reds.

"If every game counts, Cole pitches the last game and Edinson [Volquez] is available for the [division tiebreaker] game in St. Louis," Hurdle said. "Then the next step is Locke in the Wild Card Game. We will see. No need to make a decision now."

Hurdle isn't convinced Bochy's plans are set in stone.

"I know the man," Hurdle said. "I don't think he'll concede anything. We'll see how it plays out two days from now [if the Wild Card home-field advantage is still up for grabs]. But I understand Bochy having those thoughts. [Bumgarner] has been his guy."

As the Giants' top winner, Bumgarner is 18-10 with a 2.98 ERA. He has been particularly effective since being roughed up in his final July start, going 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA in his last 10 starts.

His tormentors in that July 28 start? The Pirates, who knocked him around for five runs and six hits in four innings for their 5-0 victory at AT&T Park.

Worth noting
Pedro Alvarez (stress reaction, left foot) is scheduled for a visit Tuesday with a specialist, hoping to get clearance to begin moderate workouts.

Ike Davis showed up under the weather Friday and was sidelined with what Hurdle described as "flu-like symptoms that were a little more."

• Volquez ended his regular season with a 1.36 ERA in his last 10 starts -- the lowest in a 10-start stretch for a Pittsburgh starting pitcher since Zane Smith's 1.08 in 1990.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Chance of winning division takes crushing blow

Bucs remain a game behind Cards with one game to play

Chance of winning division takes crushing blow

CINCINNATI -- Instead of his usual solid game, Francisco Liriano on Saturday gave the Pirates a target. They couldn't hit it, but hours later Mark Trumbo kept St. Louis in their National League Central bull's-eye.

Trumbo's three-run homer in the seventh stunned the Cardinals into a 5-2 defeat in Arizona, sending the division race to a 162nd -- and possibly still penultimate -- game. It prevented the Cards from clinching over the Pirates, who had lost earlier Saturday to the Reds, 10-6, on Ramon Santiago's 10th-inning walk-off grand slam. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are one game apart on the final day of the regular season.


The Bucs initially overcame the 3-0 hole dug in the first inning by Liriano, but that merely set in motion a give-and-take game they ultimately dropped.

"We've got a lot of come-from-behind victories. Today was just a case where they threw some punches back," Neil Walker said.

Rookie lefty Bobby LaFromboise had inherited a bases-loaded, one-out jam from John Axford in the 10th and recovered from a 3-0 count to get pinch-hitter Brayan Pena on a shallow fly before being taken deep by Santiago, who had only one prior home run this season in 179 at-bats. It was also the 13-year veteran's first career grand slam.

"It was good [the way LaFromboise got Pena], and you think you got a chance," manager Clint Hurdle said. "You try to hang on and find a way to play another inning, and it didn't work out.

"In late innings, as we all know, walks never turn out to be your friend."

Axford, the fifth reliever called on in the wake of a short Liriano start, struggled out of the bullpen gate in the 10th. He walked the first man he faced, Todd Frazier, on four pitches. Axford survived a Devin Mesoraco smash to the center-field warning track for an out, but Chris Heisey followed with a solid single and Ryan Ludwick walked on a 3-2 pitch to sound the call for LaFromboise.

After surfing an emotional wave all day, the Pirates were about to get wiped out.

"Wonderfully crazy, like the season," Hurdle described this 161st game. "We got down, scratched back, got ahead -- they fought their way back in. It just goes to show you -- teams are always going to play and compete."

The 75-86 Reds embraced their cameo on the postseason scene-setter in the season's penultimate game.

"They obviously had a better season than we did," said Mesoraco, "but you still want to go out there and compete and do your job. We're still getting paid. We're not just here on our own having fun. We have a job to do and you have to go out there and compete and do the best you can. Hopefully we can throw a wrench in their plans."

It was a high-wire act for Liriano, who had been flawless for a month, sporting an 0.69 ERA over his last six starts.

Liriano allowed four runs (three of them earned, as many as the total in his prior six starts). Fives were wild: In five innings, he gave up five hits and five walks and also struck out five.

Jordy Mercer's homer and Walker's two-run single added up to a three-run fifth and a brief 4-3 lead erased in the bottom of the inning by Ludwick's two-out RBI single.

Two innings later, the Pirates broke that tie as Andrew McCutchen delivered a two-out RBI single off Sam LeCure and scored on Walker's triple.

The Reds crafted another tie in the bottom of the seventh against John Holdzkom, who proved to be human by giving up a two-run homer to Frazier that tied it at 6. Those were the first runs given up by the 6-foot-7 rookie, who was appearing in his ninth game.

"It was a ball up and out over the plate," Hurdle said. "This is the big leagues; those kinds of things will happen to guys if you continue to give them the ball."

"Still, this is one of the parks where that ball reaches the seats."

Walker called it "a Great American Ball Park home run," referring to the yard's long ball friendly dimensions and air currents.

The Pirates retained their slim hopes of still smelling the thin air of a division co-championship Sunday -- which, of course, would be resolved with a Monday tiebreaker game in St. Louis.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Snider, Bucs seal at least home field for Wild Card

Hard hit in eighth breaks tie; Pirates 2 up on Giants, 1 behind Cards

Snider, Bucs seal at least home field for Wild Card

CINCINNATI -- Travis Snider, one of the Pirates' unsung heroes who inspires people to now write songs about him, has had big hits. But none have been bigger -- or harder.

Snider's double with two outs in the eighth inning here Friday night was pulled so hard it roped around an adept right fielder, scoring Josh Harrison from first base to snap a tie as the Pirates rolled to a 3-1 win over the Reds.


"Technically, I guess it is possible to hit a ball harder -- but he hit it good," said Andrew McCutchen, who had a perfect view from the on-deck circle of the drive that threw another log on the Bucs' September fire. "When you hit a ball that hard, [as an outfielder] you feel you have a bead on it -- then the ball does some crazy things."

The Pirates' 17th win in 21 games put them two games ahead of the Giants with two to play, ensuring that at the very least, Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game would be held at PNC Park. It also kept the heat on the Cardinals, who beat the D-backs in 10 innings to remain a game ahead of the Pirates in the NL Central.

With starters Vance Worley of the Pirates and Mike Leake of the Reds having bequeathed a 1-1 tie to their bullpens, Harrison singled up the middle off Pedro Villarreal with two outs in the eighth.

The single extended Harrison's latest hitting streak to 14 games, both his and the Bucs' longest of the season.

Snider followed with a rope barreled up with so much topspin, it curved around Jay Bruce and rolled all the way to the wall as Harrison motored home on the double.

"Every once in a while," Snider said, "you hit a ball on the screws, and you get the knuckleball effect. That's a tough play for an outfielder, and as a hitter, it's pretty much what you try to accomplish. Hit the ball as hard as you can, and good things will happen."

"I don't think [it's possible to hit a ball harder]. From my vantage point, the ball moved a couple of different ways," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's a very good right fielder out there -- as evidenced by the plays later."

Just to prove the point about his defensive prowess when the ball isn't struck with overwhelming force, the next inning Bruce robbed Starling Marte of extra bases with a splendid diving catch of his drive headed for the right-field corner. And two batters later, Bruce did it again, on Jose Tabata.

"It knuckled, and I just slipped and whiffed it," Bruce said of Snider's drive. "He hit it hard and it just knuckled, and it's not the first ball that's knuckled on someone before, but I just missed it. As I was trying to redirect, I just slipped."

McCutchen followed with another two-bagger to score pinch-runner Gregory Polanco with the insurance run.

Worley continued as one of the Majors' best No. 4 or No. 5 pitchers, depending on where you want to seed him in the Pirates' rotation. Worley allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings and has now posted a 2.08 ERA in his last five starts.

For the second straight start, Worley endeared himself to pitching coach Ray Searage by not issuing a walk. In those two starts, in fact, he has faced 53 batters and thrown only 37 balls (out of 156 pitches).

That is Command (yes, with a capital "C").

"That's efficiency," Worley said with a sparkle in his eyes when relayed those numbers.

"Same M.O. He moves his fastball around, back-doors the cutter, mixes in his curve and slider, throws a handful of changeups to left-handed hitters," said Hurdle, breaking down Worley's approach.

Worley, going to work the day after he turned 27, and catcher Russell Martin agreed on a simple game plan.

"I told him I'm just going after guys, hump in heaters and make adjustments off the swings they're taking," Worley said. "They were taking the first pitch, and when they eventually started swinging at that pitch, we started going offspeed on them."

The Worley-Martin partnership was done a couple of batters before Worley was. The latest round in the catcher's battle with a balky left hamstring went to the hammy, compelling Martin to depart after he'd drawn a painful walk in the top of the seventh.

"Some days are better than others, and today it just seemed to be tougher for him to get loose," Hurdle said.

Martin himself appeared visibly frustrated with the lingering discomfort, and he declined to get into it in detail. Chris Stewart is certain to catch Saturday afternoon's game.

Leake definitely had the spoiler's blood flowing. Battered for 18 runs in 21 innings (7.71 ERA) in his prior four starts, he gave the Pirates one run in seven, on a Gaby Sanchez homer. Otherwise, Leake perplexed the Bucs on two hits, fanning eight of them.

Sanchez will agree that Great American Ball Park is great. On his 23rd at-bat of the season here, he connected for his third homer, of his total of seven.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less Columnist

Jonathan Mayo

Unveiling the 2014 All-Prospect Team

Sluggers Bryant and Gallo make the cut, as do pairs of Dodgers, Nationals and Red Sox

Unveiling the 2014 All-Prospect Team

Last week, handed out year-end awards for top hitting and pitching prospects. As much as Kris Bryant and Tyler Glasnow were deserving recipients, it was clear there were many other fantastic performances in 2014 that deserved some attention.

With that in mind, announced its 2014 All-Prospect Team on Friday. There's a prospect for each position, including three outfielders, a DH, a right-handed and left-handed starting pitcher and one reliever. The only requirements were that a player appeared at some point on a team's Top 20 list on Prospect Watch and spent the majority of the year in the Minor Leagues.


1B: Matt Olson, Oakland A's
Perhaps lost in the shadow of the power displays of Bryant and Joey Gallo, Olson finished third in all of the Minors with 37 home runs. The A's No. 2 prospect also walked 117 times to lead the Minor Leagues, allowing him to finish with a robust .404 OBP and .947 OPS.

2B: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
Betts has more than held his own in the big leagues, playing center field and second base. He began the year as the No. 62 prospect on the Top 100, then moved up to No. 14 on the re-ranked list this summer. The jump was thanks to a huge season at Double and Triple-A. Betts hit .346/.431/.529 with 33 steals in 99 games before getting called up to Boston.

SS: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
The fact that Seager hit in the California League surprised no one. Neither did the fact he kept on raking when he reached Double-A. The Dodgers' top prospect hit a combined .349/.402/.602 to win the Minor League batting title, and his .602 slugging percentage was also good for fourth in the Minors. All coming from the shortstop position, while reaching the upper levels of the system at age 20.

3B: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
He was the Hitting Prospect of the Year, after all. The Cubs' top prospect led the Minors in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. He was second in OBP, third in RBIs, and he even stole 15 bases while reaching Triple-A in his first full season.

C: Blake Swihart, Red Sox
Ranked as the No. 2 catcher, Swihart began the year in Double-A and finished it with the International League champion Pawtucket Red Sox in Triple-A. Combined, the switch-hitting 2011 first-round pick hit .293/.341/.469. He also threw out 46 percent of would-be basestealers and improved his defense behind the plate.

OF: Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers
Quick quiz: How many professional baseball players went 30-30 in 2014? One: Pederson. At No. 16 on the Top 100 and No. 3 on the Dodgers' list, Pederson was the only player at any level to accomplish the feat. The outfielder did it in just 121 games and 448 at-bats with Triple-A Albuquerque before receiving a September callup. Pederson not only had 33 homers and 30 steals, he also had a 1.017 OPS, good for fourth in the Minors. Sure, he struck out 149 times, but he also drew 100 walks en route to a .435 OBP, third among Minor Leaguers.

OF: Michael Taylor, Washington Nationals
A raw, toolsy shortstop-turned-outfielder, Taylor had a breakout year, largely in Double-A, in 2014. The Nationals' No. 3 prospect had a 20-30 season (23 home runs, 37 steals), went to the Futures Game and earned his first big league callup. His strikeout rate is still quite high, but his walk rate and OBP improved this year, signs he's moving in a very good direction.

OF: Steven Souza Jr., Washington Nationals
Souza may not have the same marquee value compared to others on this list -- he's one of only two players not on the Top 100 -- but it's impossible to look past the year he had before joining the Nationals. Souza started the year No. 14 on the Nationals' Top 20 and moved to fifth after hitting .345/.427/.577 over 100 Minor League games. His 1.004 OPS was sixth-best among all Minor League hitters, and he stole 28 bases to boot.

DH: Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers
Gallo certainly belongs on this list, but he was blocked at his normal position by Bryant. The Rangers' top prospect finished just one homer behind Bryant, narrowly missing out on his second straight Minor League home run crown. More impressive than his power output -- though his Futures Game display will be remembered for a long time -- are the adjustments he made to earn a promotion to Double-A. His approach at the plate matured, and as a result he drew more walks and made more contact, giving him more chances to tap into his plus power.

RHP: Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pitching Prospect of the Year, Glasnow shook off an early back issue to absolutely dominate the Florida State League. He finished the year with the lowest opponents' batting average among Minor Leaguers and the third lowest ERA. He struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings, which actually lowered his K/9 rate to 12.0 for his career. He also lowered his BB/9 rate by nearly a walk per nine from last season to this one.

LHP: Daniel Norris, Toronto Blue Jays
There were several quality lefty prospects to consider -- four received votes for Pitching Prospect of the Year, and five are among the top 30 overall prospects -- but Norris' season truly does stand out. The 2011 second-round pick began the year in the Florida State League and ended it in the big leagues, putting up eye-popping numbers along the way. The Blue Jays' No. 1 prospect finished fifth in the Minors with 163 strikeouts, held hitters to a .212 batting average and finished with a 2.53 ERA. His 11.8 K/9 rate was coupled with a 3.1 BB/9 mark.

RP: R.J. Alvarez, San Diego Padres
Alvarez began the year as the Angels' No. 7 prospect, but was dealt to the Padres in the Huston Street deal. He's not on the Padres Top 20 currently, but he's pitched as though he belongs. Between the two organizations, Alvarez posted a 1.25 ERA in 38 relief appearances, striking out 12.7 per nine while walking 2.7. Hitters managed just a .192 batting average against him in the Minors, and he's been just as stingy during his big league debut this September.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Volquez, Bucs drub Braves, within one of first place

Snider, Walker homer; Harrison has 3 hits; righty K's 10 in 7 scoreless

Volquez, Bucs drub Braves, within one of first place

ATLANTA -- A pair of aces is good. But four of a kind is even better, and that's the hand the Pirates are about to deal the postseason.

Edinson Volquez, who may not have the high profile of Francisco Liriano or Gerrit Cole but has sharper numbers, masterfully sent the Bucs into the telltale weekend by firing seven more blanks Thursday night in a 10-1 victory over the Braves.


Volquez has a string of 18 shutout innings and five consecutive wins for the first time in his career after four-hitting the Braves with a season-high 10 strikeouts.

"No," Volquez said about whether he'd ever before approached the wire on such a high. "I just followed [catcher Russell] Martin, whatever he put down. Kept trying to make good pitches."

The win, their 16th in 20 games, moved the Pirates within one game of the idle National League Central-leading Cardinals with three games to play this weekend.

The Bucs will now move on to Cincinnati for their final regular-season series, while the Cards close with their first appearance in Arizona since opening the 2013 season there by dropping two of three.

"We'll pack up and focus on winning a ballgame [Friday]," said manager Clint Hurdle, preferring to not put added weight on the climactic games because "we don't hit another gear. You just want to play. You just get ready.

"You work hard to get here. And part of it is acting like you've been there before."

From Travis Snider's first-inning homer to Neil Walker's eighth-inning two-run blast, the Pirates turned back on an offense that had stalled with 11 runs in its last seven games.

Their 16-hit attack against starter David Hale and four relievers included three hits each by Josh Harrison and Snider, and multiple-RBI hits by Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

But it was mostly about Volquez, who worked with a slim 3-0 lead as late as the sixth inning.

"Any time you get off the mound with that kind of efficiency, and that kind of command ... right away you know you're in a ballgame, that your pitcher will get you in a good spot," Hurdle said. "He pounded the zone, mixed his pitches. A really, really fine professional outing."

Thursday's gem was merely the latest in a long string of masterful performances for a revitalized veteran who could get the Bucs' first postseason assignment, an honor he has certainly earned.

Barring any juggling or a tiebreaker game, and if the Pirates stay in rotation for the rest of the regular season, Volquez would be in line to start the NL Wild Card Game against the Giants on Wednesday in PNC Park.

There may not be a better choice. Liriano and Cole have both excelled down the stretch, yet Volquez is on a longer run of superiority. The fourth ace in the Pirates' deck, Vance Worley, has won three straight decisions and sports a 2.25 ERA in his last four starts. He'll start Friday's series opener against the Reds.

"I don't want to say there's competition, but every time someone pitches good, the next guy wants to pitch better," Volquez said. "It's great, man, to have a group of guys like that. It's awesome."

Volquez's five straight wins, along with numerous hang-with-'em no-decisions, have come in a 12-start stretch during which he sports an ERA of 1.78.

Then, there's the ingredient of getting the ball at home: In his last five starts at PNC Park, Volquez has been even better, with an ERA of 1.04 (four earned runs in 34 2/3 innings).

A very interesting sidebar to the Pirates' second run was Harrison giving an assist in the batting race to a teammate with whom he is battling for that honor.

Harrison was on third base in the third inning when McCutchen flared a foul caught by right fielder Jason Heyward about 180 feet from the plate. Harrison never hesitated in tagging up and scoring on what thus became a sacrifice fly, saving McCutchen an at-bat to keep his average at .313, rather than having it drop to .312.

That could be a valuable point: Harrison ended his three-hit game leading the league with a .319 average to McCutchen's .314, with Justin Morneau between them at .317.

"There's an edge to him," Hurdle said of Harrison, "and also he's fighting for a batting title. He's not gonna let an opportunity pass by without a fight."

So the stage is set for a memorable weekend in the Queen City: Harrison, the erstwhile bench player, will try to win a batting title in his hometown, and the Pirates will try to make their own title dreams come true.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Hurdle doesn't play could've, should've game

Hurdle doesn't play could've, should've game

ATLANTA -- About a half hour after the conclusion of the Pirates' 6-2 loss to the Braves here on Wednesday night, the Cardinals also entered the loss column, by a 3-1 score in Chicago.

That was a frustrating parlay: With a win, the Bucs could have put themselves into position to catch St. Louis atop the National League Central standings on Thursday, an off-day for the Cards.


Clint Hurdle's father wasn't shy about pointing out a big opportunity missed.

"My dad went, 'Man, you could've gotten a game.' He's always that guy," Hurdle said Thursday.

The Pittsburgh manager himself isn't wired that way.

"If we don't win our game, I don't go to 'hope.' That's never a strategy for me," Hurdle said. "We didn't take care of our game, and whatever we got after that is what it is. And what we got was a break, that we didn't lose any more ground."

Worth noting
Charlie Morton, facing surgery for his sports hernia, went on the club's 60-day disabled list. Although Morton had pitched five shutout innings in a comeback start on Sept. 16, raising hope for his possible postseason participation, this move became anticipated.

"We were all of the mindset that this was the next step to take," said Hurdle, who acknowledged that surgery "is being considered."

Morton's spot on the 40-man roster was given to right-hander Chaz Roe, whom the Pirates claimed off waivers after he had been designated for assignment by the Yankees. The 27-year-old native of Steubenville, Ohio, made 21 relief appearances with the D-backs last season.

• Everyone is pulling in the same direction, obviously, but infielder Clint Barmes has a unique reason for hoping the Bucs can overtake the Cardinals for the division title.

"This will be my fourth postseason, but I still haven't gone as a division winner," said Barmes, who experienced Octobers as members of Wild Card entrants in 2007 and '09 in Colorado, and last year with the Pirates.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Streaking Pirates have pieces for extended run

Five reasons why Bucs -- the hottest team in baseball -- can win World Series

Streaking Pirates have pieces for extended run

ATLANTA -- A year ago, the Pirates were into breaking curses and making statements. Crashing a postseason to end a lost generation will do that to you.

The 2014 encore is all about acting like they have been there before. Because now they have.


"This feels like routine business," Neil Walker said amidst Tuesday's late-night jubilation. "We've established our presence. We're not going away."

Walker meant that in the big picture sense of perennial contention. But he could also have been referring to the inset of the 2014 playoffs, at the end of which the Bucs could be the last team standing for five reasons.

1. They could torch the field

The Pirates are hot. Blue-flame hot. White hot. Colorado Rockies '07 hot. Clint Hurdle's memorable Rox streaked to the wire with 13 wins in their last 14 games, won a tiebreaker (the equivalent of today's Wild Card Game), then swept through both the National League Division Series and NL Championship Series into the World Series.

  Date Time Matchup Network
  Oct. 1 8 p.m. ET SF vs. PIT ESPN

So the temperature you run into October does make a difference. No team is on a roll to compare.

2. The nine Musketeers

All for one ... the Pirates do not have one big offensive weapon, only several big-enough weapons. One can go cold; a week-long slump is not unusual, and in a postseason series, it could be fatal. Another can be neutralized. And seven others could still gang up on you.

Nine different Pirates have homers in double figures, a 127-year-old franchise first. Seven have more than 50 RBIs. It's a cluster attack.

3. A pair of aces

History shows that having a dominant starter is the key to slaying October. The Pirates enter this postseason with two such pitchers on their best behavior of the year -- Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole.

Between them, they have allowed two runs or fewer in 16 of 20 second-half starts, through Cole's postseason clincher on Tuesday. As combinations go, this will be a hard one to withstand.

4. A bullish bullpen

Hurdle's bullpen pampering -- no three straight work days -- occasionally made the Bucs vulnerable in the everyday world of the regular season. But postseason series, with their regular travel days, are perfect for keeping the key relief arms cocked every day.

The Tony Watson-Mark Melancon end-game has been nails. When they work the eighth-ninth innings, the Pirates are 23-2 since June 21. Jared Hughes and Justin Wilson get the key bridge outs. Oh, and did we mention John Holdzkom?

5. The Pirates never lose World Series

Sure, first you have to get there. But the Bucs have not lost a Fall Classic since 1927, to New York's Murderers' Row, no less. Since then, they are a perfect 3-for-3 (1960, 1971, 1979).

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Hurdle wins challenge as call overturned at first

Hurdle wins challenge as call overturned at first

ATLANTA -- Little went right for the Pirates in their first game after clinching a postseason berth, but manager Clint Hurdle's successful challenge did lead to an inning-ending out in the sixth inning of Wednesday's 6-2 loss to the Braves.

Third baseman Josh Harrison charged Phil Gosselin's two-out grounder, but his throw to first was judged tardy by umpire Jerry Layne.


On Hurdle's challenge, the play was reviewed and quickly overturned, as replays clearly showed Gosselin had not yet come down on the bag when first baseman Ike Davis gloved the throw.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Barmes making impact despite lack of playing time

Barmes making impact despite lack of playing time

ATLANTA -- In Game No. 158, the Pirates rolled out something different: a double-play combination of shortstop Jordy Mercer and second baseman Clint Barmes.

With Neil Walker getting a post-clinching rest -- sitting out his first start since Aug. 20 -- Barmes made his third start of the season at second. He had last started there on June 21 -- the only other time he and Mercer teamed around the keystone.


But while they have rarely done it in-game, Barmes and Mercer have worked together all season. The former regular shortstop has turned over to Mercer more than his position -- he's given him his expertise and support.

"He's grown Jordy up," manager Clint Hurdle summarized.

Hurdle likened Barmes' supporting role to that served by Steve Kerr with the 1993-98 Chicago Bulls.

"He didn't get to play much, but he got to guard Michael Jordan in practice every day," Hurdle said. "Barmes hasn't gotten to play much, but he's tutoring Jordy every day, working with Walker every day. He's challenged those guys to get better."

So, Hurdle was asked, has he been Mercer's Mr. Miyagi?

"Good call," the manager said. "Except he's a little taller. But same haircut."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Locke hit hard, Martin hurt in loss to Braves

Lefty allows six runs; catcher cautious with hammy; Bucs still 1 1/2 out

Locke hit hard, Martin hurt in loss to Braves

ATLANTA -- The Pirates' rumble down the stretch hit a major road bump Wednesday night. Oh, they lost a game, too.

But even a 6-2 defeat to the Braves that crossed a valuable day off the dwindling regular-season schedule didn't carry the weight of the mid-game departure of catcher Russell Martin with a hamstring issue.


The Bucs still aim higher for the National League Central title -- Wednesday's costly loss kept them 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, who also lost, to the Cubs in Chicago. But Pittsburgh is already assured of a voice in postseason play, as at least an NL Wild Card entrant.

It is questionable how high it can raise that voice without a hale Martin, who departed in the middle of the fourth inning with tightness in his left hamstring.

The best sign was that Martin attributed his departure to that very dependence on his October contribution.

"With the direction we're heading now, it was just the smart, cautious decision to make," Martin said. "We didn't want to possibly make it worse and be remorseful."

Martin felt the hamstring grip as he dove back into first base on a second-inning pickoff attempt by Atlanta starter Julio Teheran, off whom he had singled. The catcher remained in the game for two more innings, then stayed on the bench at the start of the bottom of the fourth.

"It wasn't a risk worth pushing," manager Clint Hurdle said.

A strain of that hamstring had Martin on the disabled list earlier this season, from April 26 to May 22. The Pirates were 10-11 during that stretch.

"My hammy is the way it's been the whole year," Martin said. "There have been better days, worse days."

Martin was 1-for-2 against Teheran, raising his average to .295 the night after having his 13-game hitting streak halted.

Martin's greatest value, however, is behind the plate as the conductor of the terrific pitching that had led the Bucs to 15 wins in 18 games entering Wednesday's action.

The catcher disdained his usual periodic days off as the Pirates barreled down the stretch. Even though they had clinched a postseason berth with Tuesday's victory, Martin remained in the starting lineup for the 14th time in 16 games.

Given that the Bucs are already assured of a postseason presence, might Martin take some time off now to ensure being in the best possible condition when the playoff bell rings?

"We'll evaluate how he feels in the morning, and make a decision based on that," general manager Neal Huntington said.

"I don't want to speak too fast," Martin said. "I want to see how I feel [Thursday] when I wake up, and we'll make a decision from there."

Blowing up an impressive run by Pittsburgh starting pitching, Jeff Locke lasted only four innings in helping the Braves out of their extended hitting slump. The six runs off Locke matched Atlanta's biggest output in its previous 22 games; the Braves had scored a total of six runs in their last five games.

Locke continued an interesting September pattern of alternating solid starts with poor ones. Since he had held the Brewers to two runs in seven innings the last time out, he was "scheduled" for an off night.

"I don't plan in that way, for sure. It's just the way it falls sometimes," Locke said. "I just didn't bring good stuff to the game today."

Asked what had not gone right against the Braves, Locke had to force a smile and say, "Pretty much the whole game."

His manager could not disagree.

"He was up in the zone with his stuff," Hurdle said. "The consistency wasn't there with either the fastball or the secondary stuff. It was tough for him out there. It just wasn't a good night for him."

Since Aug. 19, the Pirates have faced a deficit greater than three runs only twice: Wednesday night, and on Sept. 13; that, too, was Locke's game, against the Cubs.

Emilio Bonifacio added a Braves page to his torment of the Pirates (as a Cub, he was 16-for-26 against them in the first week of the season) with a two-run single in the second inning, Teheran lined his own two-run single in the third and Justin Upton drilled a two-run homer in the fourth.

Andrew McCutchen, whose home run had accounted for the only scoring in the Bucs' 1-0 victory Monday, repeated the solo act. His two-run homer in the fifth, No. 25 of the year, was the only time the Pirates could get to Teheran, who otherwise worked through several threats to survive five innings for his 14th win.

"Locke didn't throw the way we've gotten used to. Otherwise," McCutchen said, waving off any lingering effects from Tuesday's celebrations, "it was like any other day at the park. We just have to show up [Thursday] and get the job done."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Cut4 Postseason Primer: Pittsburgh Pirates

Cut4 Postseason Primer: Pittsburgh Pirates

From 30 World Series hopefuls, only a few remain. In case you haven't been following every contender, here's a catch-up on what you missed and what to expect next. In this edition: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

Continue Reading on Cut4

Cut on Cole's finger doesn't affect pitching

Cut on Cole's finger doesn't affect pitching

ATLANTA -- There were no tears for Gerrit Cole on Tuesday, only blood and sweat.

The young right-hander pitched the Bucs into the postseason with a seven-inning effort in the 3-2 clinching victory over the Braves. Cole turned it on, retiring the last 17 men he faced, in pants blood-stained from a cut on his finger.


But this was no Curt Schilling-sized act of heroism. The cut apparently routinely shows up on top of the finger -- not the side that holds the ball -- from the force he exerts in going for the best changeup grip.

"It's not from pitching, but from the way he digs in and grabs. It's on the outside, not near the fingertip," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Some days it becomes more visible than others, and the blood can end up on his uniform and make it look like there's somewhat of an issue. But it had nothing to do with his pitching."

Worth noting
• The Bucs are tentatively set to stay in their regular rotation for the season-ending series in Cincinnati -- Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, Cole -- but, of course, that's subject to their postseason status. Once that has been determined, the pieces will get pushed around and the prep work for the playoffs will begin.

Neil Walker got the day off Wednesday after Tuesday's 0-for-4 made him 1-for-23 in his last six games.

"The at-bats have piled up on him. I just want to get him away from the fire a bit, give him a breather," Hurdle said.

• With Mark Melancon out of play after having pitched five of the previous seven games, Tony Watson found himself working the huge ninth on Tuesday.

In only his fourth career save, Watson was on the mound for the out that sent the Pirates to the postseason.

"I kept the ball, you bet," Watson said. "You never know if you'll ever again have the chance to get the out that clinches your team's playoff spot."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Back to Buctober: Pirates rally to clinch spot

Cole retires last 17 of gem; Marte plates winner; Bucs 1 1/2 out of first

Back to Buctober: Pirates rally to clinch spot

ATLANTA -- The Pirates certainly know how to celebrate anniversaries. Exactly one year after Starling Marte's ninth-inning tiebreaking home run in Wrigley Field secured the Bucs' first postseason berth in 21 years, Marte delivered a sixth-inning tiebreaking double Tuesday night as the Pirates beat the Braves, 3-2, to clinch a second straight playoff appearance.

And it kept getting better by the time the visiting clubhouse was getting cleaned up: The Cardinals were beaten in the 10th inning by the Cubs, pulling the Pirates within a game-and-a-half of the National League Central lead. St. Louis and Pittsburgh, furthermore, are separated by only one game in the loss column.


"It's a different guy every day," Josh Harrison, the batting title contender, said, trying to define the Bucs' work ethic.

Not on days they can nail down postseason berths. Then, it's always the same guy.

"Was that on the same day?" Marte asked incredulously in the rocking, dripping clubhouse. "I remember the home run. And this, it was beautiful."

Marte's one-out double scored Andrew McCutchen, who had led off with a double, to put the Bucs in position for their 41st comeback win and 32nd one-run decision of the season.

"That's Pirates baseball," explained Gerrit Cole, again the conductor of a major September triumph. "We don't go away. Gritty, hard ... frustrating at times.

"At the low points, we talked about how much sweeter it will be at the finish. And it is."

The Pirates had just been swept out of St. Louis at the beginning of September and went on to Chicago, where Clint Hurdle was asked about prospects for a turnaround.

"We need to play our best ball," Hurdle said. "If we play our best ball for the remaining games, we'll get in."

From that point through Tuesday night, the Pirates went 15-3.

"And we're in," Hurdle said, simply, not immodestly.

Milwaukee's loss in Cincinnati officially punched the Bucs' ticket, but they still have eyes on jumping the October rails on the National League Central title express and not the NL Wild Card local.

That had to explain one of the more sedate on-field celebrations ever witnessed by even the most veteran baseball watchers. As, for example, Turner Field fans who saw a visiting team celebrate either a postseason clincher or playoff series victory for the 11th time in the park's 17 seasons.

"We've got more work to do," Neil Walker said. "This hopefully was just the first stop. Not the destination."

"It's unbelievable," noted Ike Davis. "We don't yet know where we'll get in. But we are in. Just think: We now have a chance to win the World Series."

And with 15 wins in their last 18 games, why would the Pirates lower their sights?

The Cole Train pulled them into the station Tuesday night. Cole, who a year ago pitched both iconic wins No. 81 and No. 82 for a team that had not had a winning season in 20 years, was behind another landmark victory.

Cole allowed a first-inning run and was headed to bigger trouble when the Braves loaded the bases with none out in the second. Another run did score on a double-play grounder by Andrelton Simmons, but Cole was on his way to retiring the last 17 men he'd face. The righty did so despite a blister on his pitching hand that bled on to his uniform.

Cole, improving the September record for his fledgling career to 8-1, went seven innings on a yield of four hits and two runs, with two walks and eight strikeouts.

He bought more than enough time for the Pirates to go to work on left-hander Alex Wood's 2-0 lead.

"Anytime you score early, no matter what the situation is, it's always nice," Wood said. "You'd like to bear down a little bit more than I did."

"We felt it was coming," Cole said. "And when we got it, we locked it down."

The Bucs' first run was the result of a play they occasionally try, but never get right: With runners at the corners, have the man on first get into a rundown to enable the man on third to score.

Actually, it did not work right this time either. But it didn't have to. In the fourth, Marte was about to reverse field and elicit a rundown when he saw catcher Christian Bethancourt's throw sail wide of second baseman Phil Gosselin. So Marte continued onto second while McCutchen easily scored from third on the throwing error.

Travis Snider tied it at 2 with a leadoff homer the next inning, continuing to make the argument for regular play, regardless of the pitcher's dominant hand. Snider has always broken the mold of lefty hitters, and again is hitting far better against southpaws (.375) than against right-handers (.240).

"That one to Snider, you can't miss big," said Wood, implying that he had done just that. "Up here, you have to miss small when you miss, and it was just a really big miss and he made me pay for it."

"It's not about me. It's about this locker room of guys who are always ready to play their roles," Snider said. "This is the first payoff for all of us."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


Pirates clinch Back-to-back Buctobers with victory

Pirates clinch Back-to-back Buctobers with victory

After breaking their 20-year playoff drought last season, the Pirates decided to start a new streak when they clinched "back-to-back Buctobers" with their 3-2 victory over the Braves on Tuesday night.

 It was an outcome that didn't look very likely at the start of the season as the Pirates were 12-20 on May 5th with only a 6% chance of reaching the postseason. Since then, the Pirates went 74-51 including a torrid 15-4 mark in the month of September to lock up a spot in October. 

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