PITTSBURGH — The Pirates came into today’s game needing either a win or a Cubs loss in order to clinch home field advantage in the Wild Card game on Wednesday. MLB set up the schedule this year so that all games would start at the same time, which meant the Pirates and Cubs would be playing at the same time, giving neither team an advantage in knowing what they needed to do. This led to some scoreboard watching, but also led to the Pirates knowing that they could just lock things up with a win.
“I did look up there a couple of times,” Andrew McCutchen said about watching the scoreboard. “It didn’t surprise me that they were winning and ended up winning. But we know we needed to take care of business and just win the ballgame.”
The Cubs got a quick 3-0 lead in the first inning of their game, which was the start of them going on to win their eighth game in a row. The Pirates suddenly needed a big performance to avoid going to Chicago to face Jake Arrieta. They got that big performance from J.A. Happ, who has been their best pitcher statistically since the trade deadline.
Happ went six shutout innings, giving up three hits, three walks, and striking out seven. That wraps up an impressive regular season campaign with the Pirates, where he posted a 1.37 ERA and a 2.91 xFIP in 59 innings over his final ten starts, with a 63:11 K/BB ratio. Those are some amazing numbers, but even more impressive was that he did it today without his best stuff.
“The execution today — he really had no breaking ball,” Clint Hurdle said of the outing. “He went to the fastball, he went to the cutter. That stroke to the gloveside played. The changeup played to keep them off the fastball. Very efficient outing again.”
Happ said that he had a few good changeups against right-handers today, which definitely helped.
“I missed a few times over the plate, got away with a few today,” Happ said. “For the most part, I feel pretty good about it.”
Meanwhile, the Pirates slowly built a lead against the Reds. They got on the board in the first inning after a double from Josh Harrison and a single from Neil Walker. Pedro Alvarez crushed a solo homer to lead off the fourth inning to give them a 2-0 lead.
They got some defense in the sixth inning when Starling Marte threw out Brandon Phillips at second. Phillips hit a two-out single, and tried stretching it to a double. Marte had a different idea, and threw out Phillips, with a nice dive from Neil Walker to make the tag.
“There wasn’t a save in this game, but it very well could have been the play Marte made in left-field, throwing out Phillips,” Hurdle said. “Walker diving and making the tag. Big play in the ballgame.”
As a side note, if you missed it yesterday, check out my article on what makes Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco so good at throwing out runners.
Happ was pulled in the bottom of the sixth inning for a pinch hitter after Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer hit back to back doubles to bring in a third run. Another pair of back to back doubles in the seventh made it 4-0, which ended up being the final score.
The big credit here goes to Happ, who came up big in a game where the Pirates really needed him.
“It feels good,” Happ said. “It feels good to come up for the guys in this game. We’d be excited to play, no matter where we’re playing, but I think we are happy it’s going to be here.”
Josh Harrison Stepping Up
Coming into today’s game, Josh Harrison had been on a hot streak. Since Jung-ho Kang went down, Harrison had a .340/.380/.489 line in 50 plate appearances. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles in today’s game. I wrote last week about how Jordy Mercer has stepped up in a big way with Kang out, and Harrison can be added to that list.
“That’s been one of the characteristics of our club and our organization the last three years,” Hurdle said. “When guys have gone down, men have moved in the opportunities that were given to them. Whether it’s on the defensive side of the ball, the offensive side of the ball…It’s obviously helped with Mercer and Harrison swinging the bats. Connect the dots in the lineup better. Lengthen the lineup out. It just makes us a better team.”
The strong performance from Harrison is coming at a great time, as the Pirates will need plenty of offense heading into the Wild Card game.
“We’ve seen it before,” Hurdle said of this offense from Harrison. “You watched a lot of it last year. When he gets comfortable, and gets that confidence flowing in that box, he can do a lot of things with that barrel. He can move the ball around, he can hit hard, he can hit soft. Another guy that’s finishing very strong.”
As to the reason for the success, Harrison credits it to coming back from his injury, which isn’t an easy path.
“Rehab games, it’s not the big leagues,” Harrison said. “You can do whatever you want down there, but you’re not facing a Madison Bumgarner or a Gerrit Cole or those type of arms down there. You may be seeing pitches and getting some game flow, but it’s completely different adrenalin. When you come back, it takes some adjusting.”
It will be interesting to see whether the Pirates stick with Harrison against Arrieta or go with Aramis Ramirez on Wednesday.
After the game, Josh Harrison announced to the crowd at PNC Park that there would be a blackout at PNC for the Wild Card game for the third year in a row. The last two years have seen an incredible atmosphere, and some of the new players are already looking forward to experiencing it first hand.
“I remember last year, it was the only game I watched in the post-season,” Francisco Cervelli said. “I was on vacation, and the TV was showing [the game]. That was unbelievable. They were showing the noise on TV. I can’t wait to see it.”
Happ said that the intensity and atmosphere should be there, and looks forward to his first playoff experience since his time with the Phillies.
“I’ve been waiting to get back to playoff baseball for several years now,” Happ said. “So, on a personal note, I’m just really excited to watch it happen. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, in any other dugout. I’m anxious to watch our guys play.”
Clint Hurdle said that the win today makes things a little bit more seamless for the team, since they get to stay in Pittsburgh.
“We love playing at home,” Hurdle said. “Our guys love pitching at home. It’s going to be an opportunity to be a really good ballgame. I love it when our fans show up. They should be loud, and they should be proud. Our men will go up there and play. We are looking forward to the opportunity. We’ve earned it.”
As for whether the new guys are being prepped for the atmosphere, don’t count on any spoilers from Josh Harrison.
“I really don’t like spoiling it for people. I want them to experience it for themselves,” Harrison said, when asked if he’s told anyone what to expect.
Notes and Quotes
**Clint Hurdle on the season: “I’m proud of our team regardless of anything else that has gone on. We won 98 ballgames. We’ve got a home field game in the Wild Card. Everybody in that clubhouse contributed something throughout the course of the season to get us to this point, and we’ll look forward to the next step.”
**Francisco Cervelli on Happ: “He’s unbelievable. He’s tough…this guy has been a been help for us.”
**Andrew McCutchen on whether he’s noticed being pitched differently since Jung-ho Kang went down: “I don’t notice how they’re pitching me. I’m just focused on hitting my pitch. That’s what it’s all about. Getting my pitch and hitting it. If I don’t get it, I’ll take my walk.”
**Hurdle on what has made Happ so good lately: “I think it was some early tweaks in his delivery. I think his own mindset helped. An opportunity to start fresh and new. It’s not something he didn’t have before. So he was able to reacquire it. Reconnect the dots in the delivery. And just been pitching with so much conviction and focus.”
**Happ ultimately deferred to later when asked about a potential free agent signing with the Pirates, but did offer this: “Of course it’s something I would absolutely consider. I have nothing bad to say about my time here. In fact, it’s all the opposite. Everything has been great.”