PITTSBURGH -- Their best pitcher wasn't at his best. Not even close. But the Pirates were at their opportunistic best, and it got them close to a plateau that seemed inconceivable back when they dragged bats through the first month of the season.With four relievers picking up short-winded James McDonald with five shutout innings, the Bucs edged the Royals, 5-3, in front of 39,312 at PNC Park on Saturday night to edge within one game of the National League Central lead. Yep. The Pirates (31-27) are one length behind the Reds (32-26) following a victory that neatly captured the essence of their rags-to-whole-cloth rise. Purveyors of small-ball, the Pirates shrank it down to micro-ball for the eerie go-ahead five-run rally in the fourth, an inning in which the hardest-hit ball was Pedro Alvarez' fly for the third out. Before that ... two walks, one hit batter, one error, two force plays, two infield singles, one single to the outfield ... five runs. "All about location," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said. "Balls were finding grass and just finding spots. A tough inning, if you're playing defense. Nobody barreled up the ball." "They didn't hit the ball hard, but they scored five runs," Royals manager Ned Yost had to agree. "A couple of plays that almost happened didn't -- we got some breaks," Hurdle added. "It wasn't loud."
But it was the only noise the Pirates made all night -- they managed a total of three hits in the other seven innings -- and it was effective, especially in taking McDonald off a rare hook. The practical, if not titular, ace went four erratic innings, allowing five hits and three runs."You still gotta give credit to those guys," McDonald said of the Royals, who had come into town with 13 wins in their last 18 road games. "They're big league hitters. You can't just say it's all me making bad pitches. They put some good spins on balls, put together good at-bats as well. I could have done better, but they also did a pretty good job." "James gave us what we had with what he had," Hurdle said. "The fastball command was not where we'd seen it, and he had to struggle to find his secondary pitches." McDonald's lack of his usual put-away stuff was apparent. Through his four innings, he could finish off only two of the eight men on whom he got two strikes. And one of them was McDonald's pitching opponent, Vin Mazzaro, on his seventh career at-bat. Then, as if to reinforce the impression that he had the upper hand, Mazzaro got even on his eighth career at-bat -- drilling a two-out RBI single in the fourth for a 3-0 lead. That hit could've taken all the air out of the Bucs -- as much because of the circumstances as because of who got it. Eric Hosmer led off the inning with a double, but he was still on third after two outs. McDonald jumped to an 0-and-2 edge against Mazzaro who, taking the proverbial advice, took two balls and hit to right. But the air under the Pirates' wings isn't so thin these days. They aren't into squandering multiple chances, and when Mazzaro began the bottom of the fourth by walking Alvarez and plunking Jose Tabata on the hand, the door opened for the Bucs and they kept it open.
"That's big. They picked me up big-time right there. Rally inning, good inning. That's the kind of inning you need from your team," McDonald said of the surge that also got him out of the game.Given the fact McDonald had already thrown 76 pitches, Hurdle probably was not too conflicted about sending him to an early shower. So when his spot in the batting order came up with a run in and the bases still loaded with none out, the decision to send up pinch-hitter Matt Hague was a no-brainer. "If we had a chance to get back in the game, we were going to hit Matt," Hurdle said. "Once it fell that way, we had to make that move." The next moves were all toward the bullpen. Chris Resop went the fifth, Doug Slaten bailed him two-thirds out of a two-on, none-out strife in the sixth, Jared Hughes got the last out in that inning and nailed down the next two, then Joel Hanrahan turned the ninth into his 17th save. The official scorer used his prerogative to make a judgment call, awarding the victory to Hughes (2-0). Hurdle had no qualms with that. "Hughes was good. Real instrumental in us winning that game," the manager said. Concurring, McDonald said, ""Hughes was really big today. I was really impressed." Just doing his part to stay with that fast bullpen crowd. "We've got a lot of competitive guys out there," the big right-hander said. "All of us stick to our strengths. I'm learning from them. We won the game; that's how I like to evaluate my work afterwards. If we win ... that's all that matters." After the smoke cleared from the post-win celebratory fireworks, the stage went up for the post-game concert. It was time for Boyz II Men.
Which could be another subtitle for the Pirates' journey, from early April to early June.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com 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.