By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, May 22, 2011
There were a couple of places Jim Leyland didn't expect to find himself or his Detroit Tigers on the next to last weekend in May, seven games behind the Cleveland Indians being one of 'em.
Getting pushed around PNC Park by the Pirates was probably another, but when you've managed more big league games than anyone save for only 15 people (Saturday night brought game No. 3,058), you've no doubt begun to appreciate that, as the ancient philosopher Joaquin Andujar observed, it all comes down to one word: "yaneverknow."
One more thing the old Pirates skipper probably didn't expect, which was the peculiar narrative of Saturday night's proceedings, in which unbeaten Detroit starter Max Scherzer was chased in an elongated sixth inning that overturned a two-run Tigers lead.
"Came to us last year and seemed to have figured it all out," Leyland said long before having to pull his 6-0 righty at the start of a roaring Pirates comeback. "He's got a good change, good slider, and a live, live arm. He was one of the best pitchers in the league the second half of last year."
Scherzer had turned that up to flat out unbeatable through the first seven weeks of 2011, so it didn't exactly figure that the first club to solve him would be your .237-hitting Pirates, keepers of one of only three offenses in the majors with more strikeouts than hits. (Nats and Padres).
But the Pirates, who scored 10 runs in the Friday night opener of this series -- generally enough to hold them for a week -- have now scored five or more in five of the past six. They started the sixth inning scoreless and seemingly clueless, and without any indication from Scherzer that he was headed for anything but 7-0.
But the Pirates ... suddenly a lot of sentences are starting "But the Pirates."
Probably a good thing.
Andrew McCutchen, down in the count 0-2, swatted the third pitch to left field for a leadoff single, and Jose Tabata mashed a 1-2 pitch to center so hard McCutchen could only move up one base. Garrett Jones murdered the next pitch, but with so much topspin that it nosedived in the dirt parallel to the foul line and hopped over the fence for a double, keeping the tying run at third temporarily.
All of which cued the best at-bat of the night, and as is so often the case this spring, the best at-bat most nights comes from Neil Walker, who was in no mood for an 0-fer on his own bobblehead night.
Pitching coach Rick Knapp visited Scherzer at this point, but whatever approach to Walker got discussed will have to be entered into the data as ineffective. Walker fouled the first pitch, took ball one and ball two, fouled the fourth pitch, fouled the fifth pitch, took ball three, and then put a sweet, controlled, RBI-man's stroke on a 94 mph fastball, lifting it to the broadest part of the lawn for a score-tying sacrifice fly.
Lyle Overbay then lifted another to put the Pirates ahead, and the resurgent offense scored thrice again in the seventh against Detroit's bullpen. But it was the previous inning's work against Scherzer that was so significant, because it's difficult enough to hit in this game without being thrown into the interleague soup against a total stranger with a 2.81 earned run average.
"It's like a pop quiz," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We prepared the same as we have since the start of the year. We tried to focus on his last three starts, point out that he's capable of this, capable of that. If you overload them with preparation, sometimes it can lock them up."
This is not a problem with Walker who seems to get better the more complicated any particular at-bat gets. He's as dangerous at 2-2 and 3-2 as he is in the traditional hitter's counts.
"I think the biggest thing for me [in his sixth-inning at-bat] was not to go all-out on any certain pitch," said the second-baseman who, by the way, started the game-ending double play. "He was throwing a good fastball and a good changeup and I didn't want to sell out on either one. I just tried to use the middle of the field, and if I had to foul off a bunch of fastballs until I could do that, so be it."
One last thing you can be all but certain Jim Leyland didn't expect -- to wake up May 22 and have the same record as the Pirates.
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