Pirates use fast start, Walker's hot bat to beat Marlins
MIAMI — Clint Hurdle fielded questions Saturday about what kind of external options might be available to improve his club's ailing offense as the clock ticked down to next week's trade deadline. But the Pirates manager knew any significant spike in offensive performance likely would have to come internally.
Prior to a 7-4 win over the Marlins, Hurdle noted there were “four or five” Pirates batters who continued to perform below career levels of performance, including second baseman Neil Walker.
“We need more from him,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates received more from Walker on Saturday night.
Walker rifled line drives all over the field at spacious Marlins Park during a 3-for-5, two-RBI night.
After Starling Marte led off the game with a double, Walker slashed a double down the left-field line off Marlins starter Tom Koehler to better the Pirates' offensive output from all of Friday. Walker lined a sharp single to center in the third and turned on a Ryan Webb 82 mph slider in the sixth, sending a laser of a double down the right-field line, again scoring Marte to give the Pirates a valuable insurance run and a 6-4 lead.
Even Walker's outs offered encouraging sound: they were loud. Walker flied out to deep left in the fourth, and deep center in the eighth, against Marlins lefty Dan Jennings.
“Nights like tonight are where I'm at my best,” Walker said. “I'm hitting the ball on a line not trying to do too much. I'm not trying to create power or more than what I'm capable of doing.”
If Walker can author a second-half rebound — he entered hitting .237, 40 points below his career average — it would be the equivalent of the Pirates engineering a trade.
“I think so. It's no secret that there have been a few of us, numbers-wise, that haven't done what we've done in the past,” Walker said. “If my numbers improve, in my opinion, the team is going to get better.”
Perhaps such a bounce-back starts with health. Walker has dealt with several injuries this season, including an oblique strain, which led to a trip to the disabled list earlier this month. He was activated Tuesday.
But the Pirates have other health issues.
Backup catcher Michael McKenry — playing for an injured Russell Martin — entered batting .191 and had a career high four-hits. The Pirates produced 14 hits as a team Saturday. But McKenry “tweaked” his left knee sliding into second base, according to Hurdle, who said he would discuss the situation with general manager Neal Huntington after the game. The Pirates might be forced to recall catcher Tony Sanchez.
Timely hitting often has been absent from the Pirates' lineup, though that too improved Saturday. The Pirates recorded three hits with runners in scoring position in the first inning: a Garrett Jones double scored Walker, and a McKenry single scored Jones.
The Pirates had not had three hits with runners in scoring position since July 10.
In the third, Jones again plated Walker with an RBI single, and McKenry batted in Pedro Alvarez with a single for a 5-1 lead.
The Pirates needed the scoring, as starter Charlie Morton failed to post a third consecutive quality start.
Morton allowed three runs and five hits in the third, including an RBI double to Giancarlo Stanton and RBI singles to Logan Morrison, who batted in Stanton, and Jake Marisnick, who scored Morrison, cutting the Pirates' lead to 5-4.
Morton's velocity was sound, sitting 91 to 94 mph with his two-seam fastball, but his command was inconsistent. Morton allowed nine hits and four runs — three earned — over five innings, He did not walk a batter and struck out six.
“There are things I'd love to have back in terms of command execution,” Morton said. “Stuff was average.”
Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Tony Watson combined for three shutout innings, and Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for the save.