Pirates make early lead stand up against lowly Braves
Third base coach Rick Sofield held up the stop sign, but Gregory Polanco kept on chugging.
It was a reasonable gamble by Polanco. It was the third inning, and the Pirates already were up three runs on the Atlanta Braves, whose low-wattage offense is primed to challenge historic lows this season.
“(Sofield) gave me the green light first,” Polanco explained later. “When I saw (the stop sign), it was too late, so I kept going.”
Polanco beat the throw to the plate — a good decision, and as it turned out, a necessary one.
The Pirates went into the eighth inning with a six-run lead. They had to hang on for an 8-5 victory.
It was a blowout until the eighth, when reliever Cory Luebke yielded three runs in one-third of an inning. Making his first appearance since coming off the disabled list, Luebke gave up three hits, including Kelly Johnson’s two-run homer.
The Braves put their leadoff batter on base in each of the first four innings but failed to crack left-hander Jon Niese.
“Once we got him to slow his rhythm down, (he was OK),” manager Clint Hurdle said. “The mix of pitches was good. The cutter played well; it had angle and action down. He hit his spots when he needed to in those situations when he pitched out of the stretch.”
Niese worked exclusively out of the stretch in his past two bullpen sessions, a technique suggested by pitching coach Ray Searage.
“That helps out a lot,” Niese said. “It helps me stay back, stay on line and keep myself under control. I was able to calm myself when I was in the stretch and execute better.”
Niese (4-2) lost his shutout bid in the sixth. Freddie Freeman led off with a triple, then Jeff Francoeur launched a cutter into the left-field bleachers.
In eight starts, Niese has served up 11 home runs — the same number as the Braves have hit all year.
Going into the game, Atlanta was on pace for 41 homers, which would be MLB’s lowest full-season total in 68 years. The 1948 Washington Senators hit 31 homers in 154 games.
The Braves also went into this series scoring an average of three runs per game. No team has finished with a lower scoring rate since 1972.
The Pirates got that many runs off right-hander Williams Perez (1-1) in the first inning.
After John Jaso drew a leadoff walk, Andrew McCutchen went down swinging at a 2-2 breaking ball.
McCutchen’s whiff was a rarity for Perez, who went into the game averaging just 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in his career. Over his first four starts this year, Perez averaged 4.4 K/9.
Infield singles by Polanco and David Freese loaded the bases.
Jaso scored on a wild pitch. Polanco came home on Francisco Cervelli’s ground out. Matt Joyce lined an RBI single into right field.
Perez gave up two more runs in the third. Polanco, Freese and Cervelli hit consecutive singles.
Cervelli’s hit bounced into shallow right field, and Nick Markakis got to it quickly. When Polanco kept running, Sofield crossed his arms and watched the play unfold at the plate.
Polanco slid in safely an instant before Markakis’ throw got to catcher Tyler Flowers.
It was a rough inning for Sofield, who later had to hit the dirt as he dodged a foul liner by Joyce.
Alen Hanson, called up before the game from Triple-A Indianapolis, made his big-league debut pinch-hitting for Niese in the sixth. Hanson struck out swinging.
In the seventh, Joyce — who got a rare start in the outfield due to Starling Marte’s absence for paternity leave — clubbed a two-run homer off Alexi Ogando.
“It felt good off the bat,” Joyce said. “It turned out to be a couple of big runs for us. It’s exciting for me to get in there, get some at-bats and play a couple days in a row.”
The Pirates loaded the bases with none out in the eighth but failed to score against Eric O’Flaherty, who they to the Braves for cash in the final week of spring training.