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Must C Clutch: Alvarez's blast puts Bucs on top

CHICAGO -- Some ugly ball. One questioned call. Stack the decks against these Pirates and it doesn't matter, because when they see red, they just clear the way for The Bull.

Pedro Alvarez, El Toro, turned around the first pitch by James Russell, the left-handed Cubs reliever assigned to take him out, for a three-run homer that dotted a five-run seventh Thursday afternoon and lifted the Bucs to a 5-4 victory over Chicago at Wrigley Field.

"Lifted" is the proper description. Although the Pirates continued on to nearby Milwaukee by bus, they floated to Wisconsin on the wings of an emotional comeback win.

"This definitely was a strange game. It's nice to come out on top," Neil Walker said.

"We play to the finish, regardless of what it looks like," said manager Clint Hurdle, aware that it looked only bizarre until his Pirates turned it special. "We haven't been a big-inning team. Now we are."

Starting with Travis Snider's two-run pinch-hit homer and ending with Alvarez's fifth of the season, the Bucs overcame an uneven Gerrit Cole start and some shaky defense that put them at a four-run deficit after four.

Left-hander Travis Wood blanked the Pirates on four hits -- while fanning nine of them -- for six innings, but departed after Walker led off the seventh with a double.

That's correct. Walker, the switch-hitter whose ability to hit from the right side is always being debated, knocked out a lefty by matching his total of extra-base hits from that side all last season.

"Well, he was already at 100 pitches. I'm pretty sure that was his out," said Walker, missing the point: Wood did depart having thrown 106 pitches, but Cubs manager Rick Renteria clearly let him start the inning because he felt he'd be seeing Walker's weak side.

Righty Brian Schlitter came in, so Clint Barmes went out -- and Snider, batting for him, went yard.

"We all live for that moment," Snider said, "and that's what made us a great team over the last year and a half. We play for each other, and in those situations, we all expect a lot of ourselves."

Snider's fourth career pinch-hit homer -- the other three came last season -- halved Chicago's lead to 4-2.

Schlitter made way for Russell with two outs, with Starling Marte aboard on a single and Andrew McCutchen with a walk. After waiting patiently on deck while Russell warmed up, Alvarez drilled his very first pitch into the bushes beyond the center-field wall.

"Being ready to hit the first pitch -- we've had that discussion. Just so you don't get to the position of having to hit the breaking ball," Hurdle said of the frequent late-game task faced by Alvarez, dealing with the opposition's situational lefty.

Hurdle then enumerated the reasons Alvarez is becoming productive in those duels: "Confidence. Experience. Maturity. And he's seen the guy -- that goes along with the experience."

It was Alvarez's 14th run-in with Russell -- and the first time he got an extra-base hit off the southpaw.

"[Alvarez] had a good run last year," Snider said of a teammate who tied for a National League-best 36 home runs in '13, "but compared to early last year, he's a different hitter. He's come into his own. He's at a total level of comfort. For us, it's fun to sit back and watch him scare pitchers."

The Cubs were given a 1-0 lead in the third with a run as unearned as they come.

The inning began with strikeouts of Welington Castillo and Wood, before Emilio Bonifacio dribbled a ball to the left of the mound. Cole misplayed it, allowing the Pirates' biggest pest of 2014 to reach first on the fielding error.

What happened next was both maddening and impressive, depending on which dugout one watched from, as Bonifacio set off on a steal of second and wound up stealing a run.

He popped up from his slide when catcher Tony Sanchez's throw sailed into right-center, kept going, rounded third, and watching over his shoulder as McCutchen's throw rainbowed over the cutoff man, continued home to score standing up.

"It's definitely not easy [to maintain focus after such events], so you've got to put your head down and just take it pitch to pitch," said Cole, who threw his last pitch trailing 4-0, but actually came away with the win when the Bucs rallied before another pitcher had taken the hill. "Those kinds of games, you've just got to keep grinding and try to give your team as many innings as you can. And we swung the bats when it counted."

Whether or not Cole -- who struck out 10 on the day -- carried his dismay over the Bonifacio run back onto the mound is uncertain, but the fourth brought more mayhem. Anthony Rizzo and Nate Schierholtz led off with singles and were on second and third with one out when the Pirates chose to draw the infield in.

Thus, instead of a routine grounder, Starlin Castro's dribbler between third and short went for an RBI single. Another run scored on Cole's wild pitch. A third came in on a single from Castillo, even though Marte's throw from left appeared to beat Castro.

The original perception that home-plate umpire Mark Carlson had awarded the run to the Cubs because Sanchez violated Major League Baseball's no-blocking rule was erroneous.

"[Carlson] just called him safe," Hurdle explained. "He said that [Castro] barely got his foot to the plate before the tag."

Observers thought Carlson had ruled that Sanchez blocked the runner's lane without possession of the ball, because otherwise, Castro appeared out.

"Obstruction never came up," Hurdle said of his chat with Carlson. "And, yeah, I chose not to challenge."

You weren't going to get any clarification on the play from Castro, who said, "I don't know if [the umpire] called me safe because the catcher blocked home plate before he got the ball or he called [me] safe because I was safe. I don't know, but I went inside to watch the replay and I looked out."

Jason Grilli made it interesting in the ninth, loading the bases, before inducing a groundout from none other than Bonifacio.

"Pretty good baseball drama there," Hurdle said, "with Bonifacio up and the bases loaded."

So, the Pirates took their third straight series (all 2-1) the hard way to begin the season. The club had won the first three only three previous times in the last 50 years: in 1966, 1976 and 1992.

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