Sanchez, bench power Pirates in rallying to a road victory over Mets
NEW YORK — Clint Hurdle and the Pirates hitting coaches rethought their pinch-hitting program this spring after the club's bench bats struggled last season. The new program, and the new equipment, continued to pay off in a come-from-behind, 5-3 win over the New York Mets on Monday.
This season there are new pinch-hit routines and approaches, but the biggest change is the Pirates are now traveling with more equipment, having added a pitching machine to their road cargo.
When he is not in the starting lineup, first baseman Gaby Sanchez will typically begin taking swings at high-velocity offerings from the machine in the sixth and seventh innings, better preparing for hard-throwing, late-inning relievers. The Pirates did not travel with a machine previously under Hurdle.
Sanchez was ready to hit Monday. In the eighth inning, Sanchez pinch hit for platoon partner Ike Davis, who made his Mets homecoming. Sanchez homered off Mets left-hander Scott Rice to cut the deficit to 2-1.
Jose Valverde replaced Rice in the eighth, allowing a double to Starling Marte and a pinch-hit, RBI single by Jose Tabata, tying the score at 2-2.
In the ninth, Sanchez lined the go-ahead and game-winning RBI single to left off Valverde, scoring Neil Walker. An errant throw home allowed Andrew McCutchen, who had walked, to score, giving the Pirates a 4-2 lead.
“You know kind of when you are going to go up there to pinch hit. You go and stretch, and you go and hit,” Sanchez said. “I feel like we've been doing a good job of being ready, being prepared.”
After Pirates' pinch-hitters hit just .208 a year ago, the Pirates are now second in baseball with three pinch-hit home runs and lead the league with 14 pinch-hit RBIs. Pirates' pinch-hitters are batting .276.
The Mets released Valverde after the game.
“We've had a much better year pinch-hitting. It's an area that we weren't as good as we hoped to be so we did some different things,” Hurdle said. “We have velocity and spin at home that we really ramp up and get ultra-aggressive with before they come in. We have the same options on the road, now.
“The quality of the at-bats has gotten better.”
Not only did the Mets release Valverde after the loss, they also fired their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, after the team struggled to square up Pirates rookie Brandon Cumpton.
For the first time in his young career, Cumpton was not making a spot start. He was given the first shot at replacing Wandy Rodriguez in the starting rotation.
Cumpton pitched well, allowing two runs — one earned — over six innings. He did not factor in the decision as Pirates stranded 13 runners and struggled to convert opportunities against Mets rookie starter Jacob deGrom.
Cumpton walked one, struck out one, and allowed seven hits. He induced nine groundouts against four flyouts, relying heavily upon a 92-93 mph fastball, which has gained 1 mph from last season.
“I'm going to look at it as a spot start,” Cumpton said. “I just tried to establish my fastball in.”
The Mets scored twice in the fifth off Cumpton. Daniel Murphy singled in deGrom, and Juan Lagares scored after a throw got away from Pedro Alvarez. Lagares was initially ruled out at home, but a review found that Russell Martin illegally blocked the plate.
In the ninth, Mark Melancon picked up the save, allowing his first regular-season homer since April 14, 2013, to Lucas Duda. It was the longest homerless streak in baseball. Hurdle had indicated Jason Grilli might not initially return to the ninth-inning role.