PITTSBURGH – Behind one of the hottest starting pitchers in the National League, the Pirates defeated the Colorado Rockies 4-3, keeping pace with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals and raising their record to 30 games over .500.
J.A Happ continued his red-hot August, and was in control for a majority of his outing tonight. The Rockies’ only real threat came in the third inning. Brandon Barnes led off the inning with an opposite field double, followed by a single by pitcher Chris Rusin that put runners on the corners with no outs. Happ was able to limit the damage to just one run by inducing a fielder’s choice groundout, a shallow fly out to Gregory Polanco in right field that wasn’t deep enough for the Rockies to chance sending the runner from third base — the Rockies seemed to learn their lesson after last night — and a broken bat pop-out to end the rally. After a tenuous third inning, Happ settled back down and cruised through the fourth and fifth inning.
Happ’s night came to end in the sixth inning after Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez laid down a perfect bunt against the Pirates’ shift and a throwing error by Jung-Ho Kang put runners on first and second with two outs. Arquimedes Caminero came on in relief and induced a soft groundout to third base to keep the Rockies at bay and closed the book on Happ.
Overall, Happ allowed just one earned run in 5.2 innings of work, lowering his August ERA to an astounding 1.98 – good for the seventh-best ERA in the NL this month.
“The overall outing was very solid, it was very consistent,” Hurdle said afterwards. “He’s continued to stay focused on being aggressive, working the fastball, the two-seamer, mixing in the breaking stuff. He only had three, three-ball counts on the night, he retired 14 guys on three pitches or less, 17 out of 24 first pitch strikes.”
Since Happ and Pitching Coach Ray Searage have corrected Happ’s directional movement to home plate in his delivery, he’s commanded his pitches more efficiently and has developed good downhill angle. Barreling up his pitches has become a tough task for the opposition.
Much of his recent success can be credited to a more effective fastball. Opposing hitters were slugging .537 and .607 against his four-seam fastball in June and July respectively, but have seen that number shrink significantly in August to .365, according to Brooks Baseball. In turn, Happ’s hard contact percentage dropped from 43.2% in July to 26.2% in August.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my delivery and locating pitches more consistently,” Happ explained. “You get those foul balls or a groundball here, a pop-up there, it’s usually from a pretty decently located pitch.”
Happ has continued to provide the Pirates’ rotation with the boost it has needed since A.J. Burnett went down with a forearm strain. If/when Burnett returns from injury in September, it is looking more and more likely that Happ has solidified his spot in the rotation.
** Offensively, Aramis Ramirez provided Happ and the Pirates with an early three-run lead when he launched a three-run home run into the left-field bleachers in the first inning. The Pirates didn’t score again until the seventh inning, when Polanco’s fielder’s choice provided extra insurance that ended up being the difference in the game.
Mark Melancon gave up a two-run home run to Rockies catcher Nick Hundley in the ninth inning to cut the Pirates’ lead to 4-3, but Melancon was able to stop the bleeding and earn his 43rd save of the season. It was the first home run Melancon has allowed since May 11th.
** Arquimedes Caminero has become scary-good. In what is becoming a trend, Hurdle called upon the rookie to shut down another potential rally and he did so with ease. Caminero pitched a perfect 1.1 innings, seeing his scoreless streak reach 17.1 innings.
** On May 20th, the Pirates lost a tough 13-inning affair to the Minnesota Twins and saw their record fall to 18-22. It was looking more and more likely that the Pirates would have to earn their way into the playoffs through another Wild Card berth.
Since that night, the Pirates have gone 61-27, a whopping .693 clip, and are on pace to win 100 games for the first time since 1909.
“We’ve really programmed ourselves to be concerned about the game we‘re playing that day,” Hurdle said when asked whether the team is aware of the historical run they are currently on. “We’ll continue to do that with a goal in mind — the goal is to win the division. We’re doing some things of significance that we’ll be mindful of later. We are in second place. We want to get to first place.”
** The Pirates will look for their 14th series sweep of the season tomorrow afternoon when they send out Charlie Morton against the Rockies and left-hander Jorge De La Rosa.