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A Marte Partay, a Block, Electric Stuff, But Morneau’s Defense Was the Key

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The Pittsburgh Pirates had a wild finish to tonight’s game. It started in the eighth inning when Mark Melancon came on to protect a one run lead. Melancon gave up a run on two hits for his third straight blown save. He got out of the inning with a 1-1 tie, sending it to the ninth inning. That’s when Starling Marte came up huge with a solo home run to left field, bailing Melancon out and putting the Pirates back on top with the biggest #MartePartay of the year.

It wasn’t over there. Tony Watson got the first out in the ninth, then Jason Grilli came on for the save. Grilli gave up a one out walk, then got a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning. Ryan Sweeney followed with a single to right-center. Marlon Byrd charged over to backhand the ball and make a throw to keep the runner at third. Instead he missed the ball, and ran past it. The delay caused Nate Schierholtz to round third and head for home. Andrew McCutchen picked up the ball, and threw it toward the plate. Justin Morneau cut it off at the mound, turned and fired to Russell Martin, and Martin blocked Schierholtz and applied the game winning tag, holding on to the ball after the collision at the plate.

A few minutes later the St. Louis Cardinals wrapped up a win over the Washington Nationals, clinching the playoffs for the Pirates.

There were a lot of things lost in the ninth inning excitement, so here is a quick attempt to try and recap them.

Charlie Morton With Another Strong Start

About ten days ago, Charlie Morton put up his second bad start in a row, giving up three runs in five innings. That wasn’t really a bad start, but the Pirates did lose the game to the Cubs. It also followed a start where Morton gave up five in 1.2 innings. The combination, plus the general distrust in what Morton has been doing in the second half, led to people wondering if he was starting to fall apart.

Then Morton came back with eight innings and one earned run in his last start. That was followed up tonight with seven shutout innings, giving up three hits, one walk, and striking out five.

Morton has had his #ElectricStuff for most of the second half. Tonight was just another strong outing for him. When you look at the big picture, the five inning, three run start wasn’t that bad, and he’s only really had one bad outing since August 1st. He’s definitely a guy you can trust for the playoff rotation right now.

Justin Morneau's defense was the key to tonight's win. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Justin Morneau’s defense was the key to tonight’s win. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Justin Morneau’s Defense

I joked on Twitter that Justin Morneau might have had more defensive value tonight than Garrett Jones had his entire Pirates career. That might not be too much of an exaggeration. Morneau had one bad play defensively where he couldn’t field a grounder to first. He made up for it right away with a double play in the next at-bat, fielding a ball at first, stepping on the bag, and throwing to second for the tag. That was the second double play he was part of. He was also the middle man in a 4-3-6 double play. The main story here is that he made the successful throw to second two times in one game, which is something we haven’t seen from Pirates first basemen in a few years.

Morneau also came up big with his positioning at the end. If he’s not behind home plate, the ball goes wide, Martin can’t make the tag, and the Pirates are tied 2-2 with two outs and the winning run on second base. There was also the play to get the second out. Morneau made a great diving stop on a broken bat grounder to his right. He got up and made the throw to second. If he doesn’t get the out at second, the game is easily tied on Sweeney’s single. If he doesn’t make the play at all, the Pirates are in serious trouble.

Morneau’s defense might have been the biggest reason the Pirates won tonight.

Mark Melancon Struggles Again

This is the third straight outing that Mark Melancon blew a lead. Once again, he didn’t give up any hard hits. He barely missed a towering home run, which went foul, but the first hit was a soft liner to center, and the second one was a shot past Pedro Alvarez, who was playing way too far in.

You could chalk it up to Alvarez playing in too far, but the runner got to third due to a wild pitch. You could chalk that up to a bad block from Russell Martin, allowing the ball to get away and the runner to advance. None of that really says anything about Melancon going forward.

I still don’t have any concerns with Melancon’s stuff going forward. He’s still a guy who gets a strikeout per inning, doesn’t walk anyone, doesn’t give up homers, gets a lot of ground balls, and not many fly balls.

The Melancon situation reminds me of the stance I took with Charlie Morton back in July. Morton was getting hit around a lot, but he wasn’t really getting hit hard. He kept seeing soft singles, or grounders through a hole in the infield. You could chalk it up to bad luck, and I did chalk it up to bad luck. It kept happening, which gave the illusion that it was somehow something Morton was doing.

The difference is that Morton was having those problems over multiple starts. Melancon’s problems have been limited to three innings. That’s three innings of balls getting past infielders, or weak singles to the outfield. It’s three innings of runners getting free bases on wild throws or wild pitches. But mostly it’s three innings.

My only concern with Melancon is his confidence. Not his confidence in his stuff, but his confidence in his game. There’s nothing wrong with Melancon’s approach of getting a strikeout an inning and relying on ground balls for outs. But with so many balls that have gone past fielders in the past week, it would be easy for him to lack trust in his defense. That could lead to him going for more strikeouts rather than playing his game and getting ground balls. And while everyone wants strikeouts, the worst thing a pitcher can do is alter his game. Hopefully these last three innings haven’t affected Melancon’s approach, and he continues his game of a strikeout per inning and a lot of ground balls.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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