LaRoche powers Bucs past Brewers
First baseman goes deep for the second straight day
PITTSBURGH -- The storyline going into Thursday's game between the Brewers and the Pirates may have been lined with All-Star references. But by the end of a game that featured a two-hour, 28-minute rain delay before getting under way, All-Star hopeful Tom Gorzelanny and All-Star lock Ben Sheets were no longer the showstoppers.
That distinction belonged to Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche.
With his fifth multi-hit game in the past eight days, LaRoche led a surging Pirates team to a 6-3 win over the first-place Brewers in front of those of the 15,134 who endured the delay and stuck around.
Before Thursday's game, Pirates manager Jim Tracy talked about two signs that LaRoche was beginning to feel comfortable at the plate. No. 1, the first baseman was driving balls toward left field, and No. 2, when LaRoche saw his pitch to hit, he would drill it.
As if on cue, LaRoche delivered. Item one was accomplished in his first at-bat, followed by item two, three times over.
"I'm just in one of those zones. When the pitches are over the plate, I'm seeing them well," LaRoche said.
LaRoche's first plate appearance resulted in a hard groundout, but it was a groundout to the left side. It foreshadowed what was to come.
His second at-bat came two innings later, in the third, and showcased the second point in Tracy's earlier discussion. After falling behind in the count, LaRoche laced two hard foul balls down the right-field line. You could sense what was coming next. He laid off two balls before lining the next Sheets pitch over the right-field wall to give the Pirates an early three-run lead.
"I'm seeing them well," the first baseman said. "It doesn't happen all the time, so I'm trying to ride it out."
He rode it out through his next at-bat -- a double off the right-field wall that only missed going out of the park by a few feet. And he kept riding two innings later in the seventh, when LaRoche made sure this hit to right field would again leave the park, giving him his first multi-homer game as a Pirate.
How good is LaRoche going right now? Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit chimed in with his answer.
"If I was the pitchers in the National League Central, I'd be biting my fingernails," said Doumit, who sparked the offense early with his second home run in as many days. "Adam LaRoche is about as hot as anyone in the league right now. Right now, he is the hitter we remember playing against."
The three-hit day extended LaRoche's modest hitting streak to nine games. However, it's not so modest when you consider that in five of those nine games, LaRoche has had at least two hits. Three times, he's collected a trio of hits. And during that span, his average jumped from .211 to .242.
While LaRoche may be the poster boy right now, he is only the leader of an offense that features hitters up and down the lineup who are seeing pitches well and finally hitting those pitches on the nose.
"We're getting hits, and all of a sudden we're driving the ball to all parts of the park," Tracy said. "When we're getting a good pitch to hit, the ball's not just in play, but it's in play hard."
Doumit's home run was the first example of that. And while he was overshadowed by LaRoche's contributions, Xavier Nady chipped in with a three-hit afternoon of his own.
Even Jason Bay stood in front of his locker encouraged by what he felt were signs on Thursday that he is emerging from a frustrating slump. He reached base in two of his four plate appearances and knocked in a big insurance run in the third with an RBI single to center.
"That RBI ground ball up the middle felt like a grand slam," said Bay, who broke an 0-for-14 skid with the two-out hit. "I feel comfortable in there, and I feel it slowly coming around."
This offensive afternoon took over the supposed pitchers' duel that many thought was going to take place. Though it was announced later Thursday afternoon that Gorzelanny did not make the All-Star team, he outdueled Sheets, who came into the game with a league-high 10 wins.
"I had actually no good stuff today," said Gorzelanny, who threw only 56 of his 100 pitches for strikes. "I just had to go out there and fight and make them hit the ball. It was just a battle day. The stuff wasn't there."
His breaking ball wasn't there, and his fastball to Geoff Jenkins in the fourth was right down the middle.
"I think he was sitting on it," Gorzelanny said afterward.
Jenkins connected on the pitch for a two-run homer that cut a four-run Pirates lead in half. But from there Gorzelanny settled in, allowing only one more Brewers run to notch his team-leading ninth win.
"Obviously [he was] not as sharp as he's been in some if his other starts," Tracy said. "But to battle and do what he did, that's a sign of the growth of a young pitcher."
The series win against the Brewers marked the first time this year the Pirates had faced a club with a winning record and come out with a series win. And with the Cubs coming to town on Friday, the Pirates have a chance of closing out the first half of the series with four straight series victories.
"That's a great series win for us, and we played great baseball the entire series," Tracy said. "We played four great games against the team that leads our division."
The fact that the team played such solidly fundamental baseball throughout the series is arguably more of an encouraging sign than it was to win three straight. The defense was flawless. The offense was explosive. And other than one inning in the first game of the series, the pitching proved to be very gutsy.
"It shows we're not going anywhere," LaRoche said. "You can look at our club and say, 'This is going to be a cake series.' We're not going to let it [be]."
It's the same way teams may have looked at LaRoche early on this season. He could have been pegged as the easy out, or at least been the one hitter that opposing pitchers preferred to face in the heart of the Pirates lineup.
"Adversity punched him right in the face," Tracy said, of the first baseman's early struggles.
Now, LaRoche is punching it right back.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.