Pirates hang on for win, return to .500

Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 7:39 p.m.

MIAMI — The Pirates' bats have carried the club back to the .500 mark.

The offense lifted the team to an 8-6 victory over the Marlins on Saturday, a win that included a season-best 18 hits and brought the Pirates (34-34) back to the break-even mark for the first time since April 17.

And it is the Pirates' bats that have led a surge since May 1, helping the Bucs climb out of an eight-games-below-.500 hole.

Since May 1, the Pirates are 24-16 and lead the National League in on-base percentage (.351). They are second in batting average (.280) to only the Rockies.

The hit parade continued Saturday.

A night after the Pirates' combined for 17 hits in a 13-inning victory, highlighted by Gregory Polanco's five-hit night and first career home run — the game-winner — the Pirates bettered the effort by one. Every member of the starting lineup had at least one hit.

“It started in May, and it's continued on into June,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the offensive surge. “We've faced good pitching, we've had good at-bats. Our focus has been good, our preparation has been good. The actual cleats in the batter's box and working one pitch at a time and selling out to try and make the guy's job behind you easier, it shows up.”

Polanco had a relatively quiet day: he only had two hits. The prized rookie has 10 hits in his first five major league games, and he added two RBIs Saturday.

Overshadowed a bit in Polanco-palooza, has been the play of Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is playing like a player who could contend for back-to-back MVP awards. McCutchen leads all of baseball with 52 total bases and 17 extra-base hits in June, including a three-run home run off Marlins starter Randy Wolf — his 11th — that staked the Pirates to a 5-0 lead in the fourth inning Saturday.

Wolf hung a breaking ball, and McCutchen's ultra-quick hands crushed the ball, which ricocheted off the back wall of the Clevelander club behind the left-center fence at Marlins Park. Wolf did not pitch beyond the fourth, allowing five runs.

McCutchen also singled and walked. He never has finished a season with a .988 OPS, where the mark stands entering Sunday.

“I'm seeing my pitch, and I'm hitting it,” McCutchen said. “I'm simplifying it, keeping it simple for myself. That's pretty much it.”

The offensive surge is surprising in the context that it was pitching and defense that carried the club to their first winning season in two decades last season. But the Pirates' pitching staff entered Saturday last in baseball in Wins Above Replacement, a stat that takes into account total performance. The Pirates' defensive efficiency — the number of batted balls converted to outs — has fallen from an elite level last season to 25th in the game.

But what if the Pirates pitching improves? That might be difficult to do while Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are sidelined, but Charlie Morton produced his second straight quality start.

Morton allowed two runs over seven innings. Most importantly, was his sinker was biting as he produced nine groundouts against two flyball outs. Morton's groundball rate had declined early this season. Morton got the last batter he faced, Jeff Baker, to ground into the Marlins' third double play of the game to end the seventh, a season high in groundball double plays for the Pirates.

“I got some ground balls in crucial situations,” Morton said.

The Pirates bullpen again scuffled, though, allowing four runs in the ninth inning for a second straight day. Stolmy Pimentel was rocked for four runs in two-thirds of an inning.

But there was more cushion, and Saturday, Jason Grilli was able to shut the door for his 11th save.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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