PHOENIX — Austin Meadows thought the ball was in his glove until he heard the roar of the crowd at Chase Field. Meadows quickly looked down, only to discover the ball wasn't there.
" 'OK, that makes sense,' " he recalled afterward.
The line drive from David Peralta skipped off the webbing of Meadows' glove and over the left field wall for a two-run homer in the first inning. The Pirates didn't relent. They scored five runs to build a three-run lead entering the ninth, and it nearly slipped away with Felipe Vazquez on the mound.
Vazquez, who had blown four of his previous six save opportunities, coughed up two runs and loaded the bases with two outs before striking out Jake Lamb to secure a 5-4 win over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday. The Pirates nearly lost a third consecutive game in nightmarish fashion, but avoided the sweep and are 33-35 at the end of the six-game road trip.
“We’ve had a tough go at it," Jameson Taillon said afterward. "This has been a weird series for us. We’ve lost some games we should have won. That play in the first inning probably could have beaten us today, especially going against Zack Greinke."
The Pirates, now eight games back in the Central Division, lost the series opener despite being up by five runs in the seventh inning, and they clinched an eighth consecutive series loss when the Diamondbacks scored six in the first, then five against the bullpen on Tuesday.
It seemed to get worse Wednesday afternoon. Taillon, making his 14th start of the season, allowed a leadoff infield single in the first before he threw an elevated four-seam fastball to Peralta. The ball left Peralta's bat with an exit velocity of 101.2 mph and forced Meadows to retreat to the warning track, where he lost track of his distance from the wall:
"It was kind of a weird play, going back," Meadows said. "I was on it. I was obviously on the ball. I kind of jumped up, hit the wall and it slid out. I mean, it's kind of an unlucky situation. ... It's a learning experience. I'm just glad we got the win."
Clint Hurdle had a similar analysis, saying "I mean, there's room to go get the ball, and he kind of looked like, whether it was the fence or he drifted on the ball, there was hesitation. He had room to get behind that ball or at least get to the ball quicker. It didn't happen."
Taillon struck out Ketel Marte to end the inning and walked slowly back to the dugout, where hitters in the lineup assured him they'd get the runs back. Such confidence would seem surprising considering the Pirates had lost 18 of their previous 24 games. However, they scored 13 runs over the first two games of the series, batting .304 as a team against a first-place opponent.
They didn't take long to live up to their word, either. Josh Bell delivered an RBI double in the second and Jordy Mercer followed with a two-run double down the left-field line. Josh Harrison made it a four-run inning when his ground ball to third scored Gregory Polanco.
They added another run in the fourth when Mercer hit an elevated four-seam fastball over the wall in right-center for a leadoff home run. Greinke, a former Cy Young Award winner with a 21-6 record in 38 starts at Chase Field, lasted only 4 2/3 innings and walked four batters, two of whom scored in the second inning.
"Credit to them even for coming up to me and saying, ‘We’re going to get them back,’ then immediately we started putting up runs and tough at-bats," Taillon said of his offense. "Going up against a guy like that, that’s impressive to me.”
Taillon, meanwhile, pitched six consecutive scoreless innings, despite needing 49 pitches to get through the first two. He retired 14 of the final 17 batters he faced, allowing only two singles in that span, one of which was an weakly-hit ground ball up the third-base line.
With the bullpen holding a 6.09 ERA dating back to May 18, Hurdle chose to put Taillon back on the mound for the seventh, although the right-hander had already thrown 98 pitches. Taillon needed only 10 to get three outs.
“Those were good ones," Taillon said of his final five innings. "It was that keep-going mindset, one foot in front of the other, 'let’s get another clean inning, let’s do another one.' I actually felt really strong the whole way through.” The offense, though, failed to score after the fourth inning, putting the Pirates' fate in the hands of the bullpen.
Edgar Santana pitched a scoreless eighth inning, and Hurdle turned to Vazquez in the ninth. The first two batters reached before Vazquez finally got a ground ball for a potential double play, but Colin Moran chose to tag third base, rather than throwing to second to try for two outs.
"Yeah, I think we were a little surprised that we went, that he made the choice that he made," Hurdle said. Vazquez walked a batter to load the bases with two outs, and Jon Jay cut the Pirates' lead to one run with this line drive over Moran's head for a two-run double:
"Crazy inning," Vazquez would say afterward.
The Pirates chose to intentionally walk Paul Goldschmidt to face Lamb with the bases loaded, and Vazquez struck him out with a 100-mph fastball high and inside to end the game.
Vazquez threw 36 pitches and Francisco Cervelli made three mound visits, including one with Ray Searage. "To tell you the truth, I don’t know what happened," Vazquez said.
Hurdle didn't want to speculate either. He had yet to address the dropped fly ball with Meadows and planned to show Moran the potential double play before the Pirates host the Reds for a three-game series this weekend. All involved in the visitors clubhouse were relieved to have walked away with at least one win in an unusual series.
"We'll figure everything else out when we get home," Hurdle said. "We won, so we'll get on the plane and go home."
1. Taillon provides another outstanding performance.
Taillon has allowed more than three runs in only one of his past nine starts, posting a 3.63 ERA during that span. Also, he has a 2.73 ERA over his past four starts. He labored through the first two innings, only to settle in and provide the Pirates with a third strong start in their past four games.
Taillon, Joe Musgrove and Ivan Nova combined to allow only five earned runs in 18 2/3 innings during the road trip. It's difficult to search for a silver lining amid so much losing, but the Pirates needed those three to stabilize the rotation. Trevor Williams is unsure what's wrong with him, and Chad Kuhl is inconsistent.
Taillon and Musgrove have the weapons to lead a rotation, and they're trending in the right direction, as Taillon illustrated against a lineup that averaged 7.4 runs over its previous 14 games. The Diamondbacks loaded the bases on him in the second inning, and Taillon responded by striking out Goldschmidt, the hottest hitter in baseball over the past week, with a four-seam fastball high and inside.
"Took a lot of sting out of it," Hurdle said. "And again, the two runs he gave up, that's a catch. That's a catchable ball. So, very resilient."
Taillon threw 39 four-seamers, 25 sliders and 22 curveballs, producing seven called strikes with the latter. He finished with four strikeouts and two walks, while getting seven groundouts, including a double play in the seventh. He has pitched seven or more innings in two of his past three starts, lowering his ERA to 3.94.
Also, Taillon has a team-high 71 strikeouts to 21 walks. He's no longer relying on his two-seamer to produce weak contact. Instead, he's attacking hitters with a four-seamer high in the zone, while keeping hitters off balance with his three breaking pitches.
“It was a weird start, but I had felt really good and kind of just had that mindset like, ‘Let’s see if I can find a way to get my pitch count right and get through six,’ Taillon said. "I just kind of told myself, ‘Keep going.’ Through three, pitch count still isn’t great. All right, I’m through four. Let’s just try to keep going, keep going and keep going. I’m pleased with the depth I was able to give.”
2. Bell slashing to the opposite field.
Hurdle doesn't want to declare that Bell is back to his old self, however, it's difficult to ignore the results. Bell went 2 for 4 in the series finale and has now reached safely in 11 of his last 17 plate appearances. The switch-hitter was in a 1-for-20 slump with only two walks to begin June.
He went 3 for 5 with two doubles Tuesday and went 5 for 14 during the 10-game road trip. The numbers aren't as terrible as they seem. After all, Bell batted .280 in May, including .346 in the first 16 games. Hurdle won't return him to the cleanup spot anytime soon. Remember, Andrew McCutchen spent 26 games in the six-hole last season.
Plus, Bell is still swinging at some bad pitches, including two to strike out with the bases loaded in the fifth. The at-bats have been better. He's again driving the ball to both sides of the field — each of his past three doubles were hit to left field — and he's starting to make harder contact.
That's a victory in and of itself. Pulling the ball isn't the answer for him. He's been shifted 49 times this season, compared to only 12 times in 2017, per Statcast. Hitting the ball the other way is a good way to avoid that.
"I just feel like I’m keeping my head still," Bell said. "Making the pitcher come to me and just try to put my A swing on it."
3. Uncharacteristic mistake by Cervelli.
Cervelli has spent much of the past three days going through a battery of tests in order to be cleared by the team's medical staff. On Tuesday, he went through batting practice and caught Kuhl's bullpen. He also took ground balls at shortstop during pregame to work up a sweat.
However, none of those workouts simulate game speed, and Cervelli made an uncharacteristic mistake in his first game back from what Todd Tomcyzk, the team's director of sports medicine, described as a "left jaw contusion." With runners on first and second in the second inning, Taillon threw a high four-seam fastball that Cervelli missed with his glove.
The passed ball — his second of the season — allowed both runners to advance to scoring position. Taillon, though, walked the next batter and struck out Goldschmidt to strand the bases loaded.
The Pirates are tied for the fewest passed balls in the majors. That's a remarkable improvement from the previous three seasons, when they ranked fifth or worse in the statistic. It's been particularly important because the Pirates are tied for the league lead in wild pitches. They've allowed the fourth-most bases taken on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks and defensive indifference.
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