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Pirates come back again to top Astros 6-4

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For the third straight day, the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves behind the Houston Astros. For the third straight day, the Pirates came back to win. For the first time all year, the Pirates lead the National League Central all by themselves after a 6-4 victory.

 

"We don't get overwhelmed when we're down," Hurdle said. "There's definitely more confidence in the dugout throughout the game. From the top of the lineup to the bottom of the lineup, everybody feels as though they can be a part of an inning."
 
Indeed, all eight starting position players for the Pirates Wednesday afternoon either got a hit or scored a run. That team effort was good for the 23rd comeback victory on the season, albeit a far less dramatic one than the previous night's walkoff win.
 
After a quick first, the Astros struck in the 2nd on starter Kevin Correia. Carlos Lee and Scott Moore led off the inning with back-to-back singles, followed by a Jason Castro RBI sacrifice fly. Then J.D. Martinez and Brian Bogusevic singled to put the Astros up 2-0. A bad bunt by pitcher Dallas Keuchel led to Martinez being thrown out at third base, essentially putting the kibosh on any further threat.
 
"The first month or so of the season, you give up two runs early and it's going to be tight," said Correia. "Now you just have complete confidence that it's not a lead that is going to hold against our offense right now."
 
COMEBACK KIDS
 
It didn't even hold for very long. In the bottom half of the 2nd, the Pirates quickly loaded the bases with a Casey McGehee walk, Garrett Jones double, and Pedro Alvarez walk. Michael McKenry hit a sacrifice fly to center that scored McGehee, and through the fault of Astros' center fielder Jordan Schafer, allowed Jones and Alvarez to advance. It put a spark into the crowd of 36,827 that has become accustomed to good offense.
 
"Any time you can help the team, whether it's an extra RBI or whatever it may be," McKenry said. "But the fans here have just been fantastic. Fourth of July, where would you rather be but drinking a beer and eating a hot dog at a ball game?"
 
That Schafer fielding miscue proved crucial (and he was later removed from the game). Clint Barmes followed with an RBI single to score Jones, then got caught in a rundown between first and second. Barmes was tagged out, but not before Alvarez could cross home plate without a throw to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead.
 
"I should have stayed at first," Barmes said after the game. "I thought it was a bad idea." But he acknowledged that Alvarez recognized the situation and took advantage.
 
The Bucs tacked on another run in the 4th on a McKenry RBI double down the left field line. Houston got it back as Brian Bogusevic, who led off the 5th with a four-pitch walk, came around on a sacrifice bunt, single, and scored on a Jose Altuve RBI groundout. That cut the Pirates' lead to 4-3.
 
Pittsburgh had a chance to extend that lead in the 6th with singles by McKenry (who finished 2-for-3 with two RBI) and pinch hitter Eric Fryer. That was all for rookie starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who exited after allowing eleven baserunners aboard and was sent to Triple-A after the game. Reliever Fernando Rodriguez got Drew Sutton to ground out to keep it a one-run game.
 
PITCHERS HOLD THE LINE
 
Kevin Correia settled in well following that four-hit, two-run 2nd inning. The right-hander only gave up two hits after that frame, and ended up with a line of six hits, three runs and two walks in six innings of work. With his only strikeout coming to the game's first hitter, it was far from flashy, but a quality start is a quality start.
 
"His sinker was phenomenal. He got a lot of rollovers, a lot of ground balls with it," his catcher McKenry said. "He just continued to manipulate speeds. That's the key to pitching."
 
Brad Lincoln replaced Correia in the 7th and wasn't his dominant self, allowing two hits in a relief inning for the first time since May 18. The second hit was an Altuve single that would have tied the game, but Neil Walker showed great range to cut it off and keep it in the infield. Lincoln escaped unscathed by getting Jed Lowrie to ground out to first base. Lincoln's ERA as a reliever is now 0.36, the best in the National League.
 
"We actually anticipated having Lincoln go more than one inning," Hurdle said. "And the heat bit him after the first inning, so we adjusted."
 
In the bottom of the 7th, the Bucs took their opportunity for insurance off reliever David Carpenter. Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen led off with back-to-back singles. After McGehee flew out, Garrett Jones reached on an error by first base replacement Matt Downs.
 
That left the bases loaded for Pedro Alvarez, who has been dynamite in such opportunities. He lined a breaking ball from left-handed reliever Fernando Abad up the middle to bring home Walker and McCutchen and go to 8-for-12 in his career with the bases juiced. Abad struck out McKenry and Barmes to contain the fire, but the damage gave the Pirates a cushiony 6-3 lead.
 
WRAPPING UP FIRST PLACE
 
Jason Grilli followed with a 1-2-3 inning (capped by a trademark swinging strikeout of Jason Castro on a 94-mile-per-hour fastball) and All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan closed it up (despite a solo shot from J.D. Martinez) in a light rain for his 21st save to bring celebratory cheers from a sold out PNC Park.
 
"The crowd today, more so than ever, is really into it," Grilli said. "I think they're jacked up about it and that in itself is huge, to have that backing behind us."
 
So the Pirates get their Independence Day evening off. They are at the halfway point, and one game ahead of the pace set by the last playoff baseball club in Pittsburgh, the 1992 Pirates.
 
"It's a long race," Grilli said. "Going into the All-Star break, the momentum we have is pretty good... it's not how you start, it's how you finish."
 
BUCCO BITS
 
PRESLEY STILL OUT -- Outfielder Alex Presley did not play after leaving Tuesday night's game with concussion symptoms from a diving catch opportunity in left field.
 
"We wanted to give Presley another day," Hurdle said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow." Shortstop Jordy Mercer was seen in the clubhouse after the game, and could potentially be activated to the 25-man roster if he is needed.
 
SWEEP EMOTION -- The Pirates have a chance to pull off a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros on Thursday night, sending Jeff Karstens to face Bud Norris. It is a chance for the team's first four-game sweep since 2006, per TribLive Radio's Jon Anderson.
 
THE FORT OF JULY -- Michael McKenry has also started 11 of the last 21 games at the catcher position, due to his hot bat and day-to-day eligibility of Rod Barajas. He was the owner of a mediocre .611 OPS on May 14, but since then has collected a stellar .958 OPS with five home runs.
 
"Maybe it could have been the cold weather, we're not going to make any excuses," McKenry said. "We just learned from that experience and continued to grow."
 
GORKYS FLASHES GLOVE -- Gorkys Hernandez entered as a defensive substitute for Drew Sutton in left field Wednesday, and made a nice sliding catch of Scott Moore in the 8th inning, demonstrating his tremendous range into foul territory.
 
"Before the pitch, I tried to move over to the line," Hernandez said after seeing some of Moore's swings. "When I play center field, I can see everything. It goes straight. Corner can be difficult."
 
ALVAREZ IMPROVING -- The only thing hotter than the temperatures since June 16 has been Pedro Alvarez's bat. In the last 17 games, the third baseman owns a .393 average and 1.278 OPS. But just as impressive may be the plate discipline he has shown. Alvarez has drawn 10 walks and just 15 strikeouts in that time period, possibly changing his reputation as a walking strikeout victim.
 
"You're seeing a guy finding his rhythm and his confidence," Hurdle said.
 
CORREIA CUT SHORT -- Kevin Correia has not pitched into the 7th inning of a game since the month of May, but he says that is more a matter of the games he pitches being close affairs than any sort of pitch count.
 
"When it's a one-run game, it's the National League. You have to get pinch hit for," Correia said. "It's just the nature of how we have been playing. I've been keeping us in the games and they have been tight."
 
HOUSTON HAS PROBLEMS -- The Astros have gone 10-27 since May 25, and have already started to sell off assets with the trade of first baseman Carlos Lee to the Miami Marlins. Lee was removed from the game in the 7th inning, and had previously rejected a trade offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
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