Pirates wrap-up first half in style
After initially getting the cold shoulder from Giants manager and National League All-Star skipper Bruce Bochy, Andrew McCutchen will be in Arizona for the 2011 Midsummer Classic. But before McCutchen hopped a cross-country flight for the festivities, he teamed with Neil Walker, Alex Presley and Paul Maholm to throttle the Cubs for a series-clinching 9-1 victory on Sunday at PNC Park. And this time, it counts.
McCutchen cracked a three-run homer and drove in five runs, Walker rapped three extra-base hits and Presley went 2-for-5 to back Maholm, who tied a season high in strikeouts while limiting Chicago (37-55) to one run in 7.2 innings pitched. He also got on base twice via a walk and a single. In three starts versus the Cubs this season, Maholm has allowed a single run over 23.1 innings.
"We flat-out outpitched them, outfielded them and outhit them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "They outplayed us last night, and to come out today in a convincing fashion and win the series, it's good."
All Star performances abounded on Sunday, as the Pirates learned that Kevin Correia will join McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan in Arizona for the 2011 All-Star Game. Correia will replace Phillies starter Cole Hamels, who pitched today.
The Pirates finish their most successful first half since Barry Bonds left town with a 47-43 record, the first time since 1992 that the club heads into the All-Star break above .500. The Cardinals defeated the Diamondbacks and the Brewers earned a walkoff win over the Reds on Sunday, tying the teams for first place in the NL Central.
Pittsburgh sits just one game back in third place, not that Maholm was glancing over his shoulder at the out-of-town scoreboard while he was on the mound.
"It's early," Maholm said. "I think everyone understands that we're going day by day and series to series, and if we keep on winning series, then the other stuff will take care of itself. If we get to September 15, then that will be time to worry about that stuff. But right now, it's win the series and continue to play well."
"It's good to finish up strong," McCutchen said. "Paul went out and pitched a great game and the offense did well. It's time to take a little break and get ready for the next game...we have a whole second half to go."
Facing an all-right-handed lineup, Maholm (6-9) recorded eight strikeouts and didn't walk a batter while surrendering just four hits. Maholm's eight Ks tied a season high set at PNC Park on April 25 versus the Washington Nationals. The lefty did plunk two Cubs, but he worked inside masterfully while inducing a double play in each of the first four innings. Maholm had eleven ground ball outs overall.
"My goal for every hitter is to get them to beat it into the ground," Maholm said. "If I get a chance for a strikeout, then I'll go for it. But I'm trying to get out of there pretty quick."
Upon exiting with two outs in the eighth inning, Maholm received a standing ovation and tipped his cap to the crowd of 31,428. Chris Resop got Reed Johnson to fly out to end the inning, stranding Darwin Barney on third base, and Jose Veras worked a 1-2-3 ninth.
"Our pitchers are throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone," Hurdle said. "There's not a lot of sitting around on your heels [defensively] and long, drawn out innings. So everybody is ready and focused, and we were able to turn a lot of ground balls with runners on first base into double plays."
Presley led off in the first with a single on a 3-2 slider from Cubs starter Ramon Ortiz and advanced to third base on a one-out double off the center field wall by Walker. McCutchen put the Pirates on the board first with a sacrifice fly to right field.
Maholm drew a leadoff walk to start the second inning, and Presley followed with a single to right field on a first-pitch changeup. Chase d'Arnaud couldn't advance the runners, fouling off two bunt attempts and chasing a slider off the plate a strikeout. But Walker lined a slider off the Clemente Wall to score Maholm and put Presley on third.
McCutchen then punched an inside fastball into the Cubs' bullpen in center field for his 14th home run of the season, swelling the Pirates' lead to 5-0. The quick-wristed center fielder is just two shots shy of tying his career-high home run total from the 2010 season.
Chicago scraped together a run in the fourth. Johnson doubled to left field on a low curveball and Starlin Castro moved him to third base on a single to left. An Aramis Ramirez ground out plated Johnson, but Maholm escaped by getting Jeff Baker to chop into a 5-4-3 double play.
Pittsburgh chased Ortiz (0-2) from the game in the fifth. Walker tripled on a 3-1 fastball to left-center field that dropped just out of the reach of a sprawling Marlon Byrd, prompting Cubs manager Mike Quade to summon Chris Carpenter from the bullpen. McCutchen followed with his fifth RBI of the day on a sacrifice fly to center field.
Ortiz, a 38-year-old pitching for his fourth different organization since the beginning of the 2010 season, was pummeled for seven hits and six earned runs in four-plus innings pitched. He struck out two and walked one hitter.
Carpenter and James Russell threw three combined innings of scoreless relief for the Cubs, but John Grabow allowed his former club to pad its lead in the bottom of the eighth.
Pinch-hitter Garrett Jones stepped to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded following a Lyle Overbay single and a pair of walks to Brandon Wood and Mike McKenry. Jones plated two by doubling to left field on a belt-high fastball. Grabow then uncorked a wild pitch with Presley at the plate, allowing McKenry to stretch the lead to 9-1.
Last year, the Pirates face-planted into the All-Star break with a 30-58 record and had been outscored by 194 runs. While this season's break comes with the club playing its best baseball, Maholm thinks the Pirates will enjoy the respite and pick up right where they left off.
"We've got a good team and a good clubhouse where these four days off aren't going to do anything," Maholm said. "We're going to get to Houston, have fun and expect to win another series."
A day after Andrew McCutchen joined Joel Hanrahan on the National League All-Star team, Kevin Correia learned on Sunday that he too will represent the Pirates in the Midsummer Classic. Correia was added to the NL squad as a replacement for Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, who will not be available for Tuesday night's All-Star contest after pitching on Sunday. Like Hanrahan and McCutchen, Correia is a first-time All-Star.
"It's been a good season so far," Correia said. "To be the Opening Day starter and now to get to go to an All-Star game...I'm just enjoying it."
"Kevin wanted to go somewhere where he could be in the top of the rotation," Hurdle said. "Obviously we were able to afford him that opportunity. He competes and he came to spring training focused. Once we made the decision on the Opening Day pitcher, he has basically been our lead guy through the first half.
"For him to go out and pitch the way he has in the first half, I think he established a momentum and a mindset for our pitchers to follow, and everyone has played along. I don't know how many people would have shouted out eleven wins in the first half when we signed him over the winter."
Correia's 11 wins tie him for second place in the majors. The support of his teammates' bats has certainly played a part in that W total -- Correia has enjoyed the seventh-highest level of run support among NL starters -- but he has shown quality control in the first season of a two-year, $8 million free agent deal that he signed with the Pirates this past December. With 2.01 walks per nine innings pitched, Correia joins rotation mate Jeff Karstens in the top 10 among NL starters in fewest free passes issued.
2011 marks the first time that the Pirates boast three All-Star players since 1990, when Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Neal Heaton donned black and gold at Wrigley Field.
"I think people are taking notice of what we're doing over here," Correia said. "We had guys who were well-deserving of it, and I think there are some other future All-Stars on this team also. Hopefully we can keep playing well and opening peoples' eyes."
Following the July 11-13 All-Star break and a day off on Thursday, the Bucs return to action in Houston on Friday night when RHP Jeff Karstens (7-4, 2.55 ERA) opposes RHP Brett Myers (3-9, 4.88 ERA). Kevin Correia was originally scheduled to start the first game after the break, but he was pushed back after being named to the All-Star team on Sunday.