Kovacevic: Middlemen quietly take their cut
Baseball, even at its most magical, is always more mosaic than masterpiece.
Sure, it can have that singular defining moment. It can have Russell Martin drilling that ball into the third-base chalk for his astounding fourth walk-off hit of the summer. It can have Martin's fellow Pirates storming the field to slap his helmet and skip around like schoolkids. It can have those players stride collectively off the PNC Park grass to a leaping, roaring Thursday matinee crowd of 33,646.
But that moment, and all of this team's nine walk-off wins, nine extra-inning wins and 28 comeback wins, none of those take place in isolation.
Rather, they take place on a stage that's being set time and time again by the best middle relief corps in baseball.
“About time,” closer Mark Melancon playfully admonished as I informed of the day's column topic. “All those guys do is make all of this happen. People talk about our closers, whether it's me or Jason Grilli. The way we see it, we've got four or five closers on this team. And when they do their jobs, we know our other guys will come through.”
Eventually, anyway. The offense remains the lagging passenger in this otherwise pristine 70-44 scenario, and that might not change, for all we can see. Even with the 9-2 homestand that was completed Thursday, the Pirates averaged just 4.3 runs per game.
But if it seemed like most of those hits were memorable, I'll say it again: The middle relief made it happen. They took the baton when the starter sputtered. They passed it on to Melancon or did whatever was necessary for those late innings to matter.
Let's put it another way: If Justin Wilson doesn't get out of an eighth-inning jam with what Clint Hurdle later called Wilson's “biggest pitch of the season,” Martin never makes it off the bench.
Rewind for yourself ...
The Pirates had overcome early outfield hiccups and Gerrit Cole's five-inning, four-run line to rally for a 4-4 tie in the seventh. After Cole left, Jeanmar Gomez kept things cool in the 82 degree heat by putting up two scoreless innings.
Wilson followed with two quick outs in the eighth, but a single and two walks loaded the bases. That prompted a visit from pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Tony Sanchez.
Wilson's version of the exchange: “Ray just wanted me to settle down.”
Sanchez's somewhat more colorful version: “Ray told him, ‘Just get this guy out! That's enough! Get him out!”
In a tone that a rookie could never muster?
“Oh, no, I can talk to Justin that way,” he said. “That's all I was thinking, too, trust me.”
Wilson brought the heat, nothing but 96 to 97 mph from that point onward. And after ball one was followed by a mock cheer for strike one, Wilson eventually got Jeff Mathis to pop up.
Game over, right?
“I know that's how I felt coming off the mound, and that's how I think we all feel with the way this team battles,” Wilson said.
Melancon and Jared Hughes both put up a zero, and both wound up being little more than a couple of the bodies mobbing Martin.
Not everyone forgot.
“Those guys ... they're a luxury a lot of teams don't have,” Cole said. “I feel bad. I kind of hung 'em out there to dry there.”
Been going on all year:
• Tony Watson, maybe the most underappreciated performer on the roster, has been scored upon three times in his past 23 appearances. His versatility has done the most to make up for Grilli's loss.
• Wilson, a recently converted starter who found an extra few mph as a result, has been scored upon twice in his past 14 appearances.
• Vin Mazzaro, who could walk Grant Street at lunchtime without being recognized — by his own family — has been scored upon once in his past 10 appearances, including a harrowing escape Wednesday.
• Bryan Morris, steady sinker in tow, has been scored upon once in his past 11 appearances.
Get the picture?
If not, consider that Epic Collapse II last summer began with the crumbling of the middlemen, partly because of the trade of Brad Lincoln — not nearly as big a deal now as then — and partly because Watson, Jared Hughes and others wore down.
Not this time, they insist. And they've got the birth certificates to back it, not one of them older than 28.
“I think the difference this year is that we've all had enough experience in the majors, but we're also strong enough to know we can keep it going,” Morris said. “I don't see any reason for that to change.”
Nor for the brushstrokes that finish it off.