The Pirates have had a number of really close losses to the Cards in recent memory, especially of the walkoff fashion. Those two dramatic, pre-All Star Game walkoff wins against the Cards last season were cathartic, but the Redbirds still seemed to have the Pirates’ number when it came to close games. Today was a win for the good guys, though, with a Mercer single down the first base line under the glove of a diving Matt Adams propelling the Buccos to a 2-0 start over their Central rivals.
This game was weird. The Pirates had a number of defensive mistakes; Marte took a bad route to a Moss fly ball in the notch that ended up being a ground-rule double and also had an error that led both directly and indirectly to Cardinals runs in the third. Polanco took a ridiculous route to a ball that was ultimately scored a triple for Stephen Piscotty, who subsequently scored on a ground ball that Mercer lackadaisically threw away to first.
The result of this wayward fielding was that Jon Niese’s start looked a lot worse than I think it was. If his defense had his back, he likely would have given up only two or three runs and could have stayed in the game a little longer. He pitched pretty well and notched seven K’s in his five innings of work; he also threw 52 of his 81 pitches for strikes, which is serviceable.
Niese’s own words about the start reflect my thoughts: “I thought it went well,” Niese said of the start. “Obviously I felt like I pitched a lot better than the results showed. It was good.” With stronger defense behind him, his next few starts should presumably go more smoothly.
Luckily, the sloppy defense that led to the Cardinals scoring five runs was equaled by the Pirates’ continued ability to get in scoring position. The Pirates picked up where they left off against Michael Wacha last season, with runners getting to at least third base in four of the five innings Wacha was on the mound until he was pulled after 4⅓ innings. Timely hitting from Polanco (more on his strong start to the season in a second), McCutchen, and Cervelli led to runs, with contributions from all the positional starters but Marte. After Wacha left the game, though, the Pirates were completely shut down until they pushed across the winning run in extras. The Pirates bullpen, including a slow-throwing Kyle Lobstein who got the win in this game, managed to return the favor to the Cards, giving up only three hits in six innings of relief. This effort was enough to give the offense a chance to get their early-game groove back and snatch a win from St. Louis.
One thing that has stood out to me is that Polanco is getting some really solid lumber on the ball in the two games this season thus far. He’s squaring the ball up and seeing it really jump off his bat; he has three of the hardest hit balls so far this year on the Statcast leaderboard, and, according to Fangraphs, all of his hits are either medium or hard contact, with 0% weak contact thus far. Even his outs are strong hits, like the sac fly he had today to deep center. Starling Marte told him that the financial security that comes with a contract extension allows you to focus on just playing well without worrying about losing your spot (there are some really great quotes on Polanco’s contract in this Pirates Prospects article, primarily from Marte); maybe Polanco’s mind has been at ease since he signed that contract extension, but this also seems to be a continuation of last year’s second half in which he saw his hard hit ball % tick up by over five percentage points and his ISO increasing from .100 to .150, among other indicators that he was hitting the ball harder and better. It’s only two games into this season, but he already looks like a man on a mission.
The Pirates and Cards finish their season opening set today, with Juan Nicasio making only his second start since mid-June 2014. Familiar foe Mike Leake is on the mound in a different shade of red than before (although really, the Reds' red and the Cardinals' red are pretty damn similar); first pitch is at 7:05pm EDT.