Pirates make statement in win over Astros
HOUSTON — Thanks to a long blast and a lucky bounce in the ninth inning, the Pirates made a statement Monday night in the opener of an important stretch of games on their schedule.
The blast was provided by Aramis Ramirez, whose two-out, two-run homer off Billy Wagner turned out to be the decisive blow in the Pirates’ 5-4 victory over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
The bounce came courtesy of closer Mike Williams, who watched Jeff Bagwell’s smash up the middle deflect off his glove and ricochet to shortstop Jack Wilson. The ball soon found its way into first baseman Kevin Young’s glove for the final out, stranding the tying run at third and netting Williams his 28th save.
“We practice that all the time,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, tongue in cheek, after the Pirates rallied from a four-run deficit and got off to a good start in a stretch of 14 consecutive games against the three teams ahead of them in the standings.
This stretch against the Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds could determine whether the Pirates remain on the periphery of the National League Central race — they entered it 91/2 games out of first — move into contention or fall back in the pack.
“We need to play good baseball,” McClendon said. “We’re playing within our division, so we have a chance to pick up some ground and be respectable. We’ll see what happens. Everything is on us. We have to compete and win ballgames.”
Catcher Jason Kendall also called this stretch a defining point of the Pirates’ season.
“You can make or break it yourself,” he said. “You can put yourself in a position where you don’t have to hope for other teams to help you out. You can take care of business yourself.”
During this run, the Pirates have six games against the Astros, five against the Reds and three against the Cardinals. Coincidentally, it will end a few days before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
“At the end of July, we’ll have a better idea of where we are and how competitive we can be within our division,” McClendon said. “It’s a big month for us.”
The victory last night improved the Pirates to 10-14 against those three teams this season.
“I’d certainly call this one of our most impressive wins of the season,” McClendon said. “We did it against a real good team and a real good bullpen. Some things went our way tonight.”
The Pirates trailed 4-0 through four innings, then began their comeback in the fifth when Rob Mackowiak snapped an 0-for-22 slump with a two-run single.
Ramirez, who was batting .156 in July, delivered an RBI single in the seventh to pull the Pirates within a run.
Octovio Dotel, the fifth of six Astros pitchers, struck out the side in the eighth, then turned the lead over to Wagner in the ninth.
Wagner (2-2) came within two strikes of pocketing his 17th save.
Kendall, the hardest hitter in the league to strike out, went down swinging for the first out. Wilson then singled to center. Wagner notched the second out when Brian Giles grounded to second. That brought up Ramirez, who took a called strike before deciding to take a hack at a Wagner fastball. The ball didn’t come down until it had soared over the 404-foot sign on the wall in left-center.
“It wasn’t rocket science,” McClendon said. “Rammy got lucky. He got the bat started at the right time, and he was able to center the ball.”
Ramirez, though, was looking for Wagner to come back with one of his patented 98 mph fastballs.
“I know that 90 to 95 percent of the time he’s going to throw a fastball,” Ramirez said. “With the tying run on second, I just wanted to make something happen and put the ball in play.”
Could the three-RBI game be a confidence booster for Ramirez, who has only 32 RBI after recording 59 before the All-Star break last year?
“I’m looking at it that way,” he said. “I want to be the same guy as last year, the guy who was driving in runs for us.”
The Pirates put themselves in position to pull out the comeback thanks to two scoreless innings from left-hander Ron Villone and one from Sean Lowe (4-2).
They helped bail out Kris Benson, who allowed four runs in five innings in his first start since July 5. The bullpen has given up just two earned runs in its past 302/3 innings.
“The backbone of our club,” McClendon said.
Lowe surprised everyone by taking the mound to open the ninth. It turned out he merely was buying time for Williams to get ready.
“Things happened so quick in the top of the inning,” McClendon said. “Mike was probably thinking like the rest of us, that the game was over.”
When Williams entered, the Astros immediately tested him when rookie Barry Wesson, in his first major-league at-bat, hit a broken-bat single to center. Julio Lugo sacrificed him to second, and Craig Biggio’s grounder to second put the tying run on third.
Lance Berkman, the National League leader in homers and RBI, was walked intentionally, so Williams could face Bagwell. It was a curious decision, considering Berkman was 0 for 4 in his career against Williams and Bagwell was 8 for 20 with two homers.
Bagwell took a mighty cut at Williams’ 1-1 pitch and sent it back up the middle.
“I didn’t have time to think,” Williams said. “I didn’t react to it. I just stuck my glove up.”
The ball deflected toward short. Wilson charged in, gloved the ball and threw out Bagwell by a step.
Was Wilson surprised by his good fortune?
“No more than when I got that hit off Wagner,” he said, smiling.