On a night when even Elias Diaz’s groundout traveled 108.2 mph, Clint Hurdle reflected on how the game of baseball has changed.
And his thoughts went far beyond the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 18-5 victory Monday night against the National League- Central-leading Chicago Cubs.
It’s how suddenly the baseball was jumping off the bats that helped the Pirates collect:
• A total of 23 hits (four short of a 97-year-old franchise record).
#Pirates first baseman Josh Bell gets the water cooler treatment from Chris Archer after his three-home run night in an 18-5 win over the Cubs tonight at PNC Park. #LetsGoBucs pic.twitter.com/Iefq8qcSb7
— Christopher Horner (@Hornerfoto1) July 2, 2019
• Five home runs, with Josh Bell becoming the 11th player in team history to hit three in a game (20th time).
• Five hits each from Adam Frazier and Colin Moran, the first time two Pirates teammates have done that since 2010.
• Four doubles by Frazier, tying a major-league record. It’s a feat accomplished many times, but Frazier and Hall of Famer Paul Waner, who did it in 1932, are the only Pirates players to do it.
“MLB history, that’s a long time,” Frazier said. “You sit back and think about that, it’s pretty cool … especially with a Hall of Famer like Waner.”
All of those numbers indicate the Pirates are continuing an amazing growth at the plate. After hitting .231 through April, their average climbed to .253 at the end of May to .264 on Sunday (the last day of June) to .268 currently after the team hit .500 (23 for 46) against the Cubs on Monday.
“A swinging bat’s a dangerous bat,” Hurdle said. “That’s something I’ve always believed in. Aggressive swings, the balls are in the zone, hunting good, just having some fun.”
But it’s not just the balls finding grass in the outfield.
“The velocity is really grabbing my attention, off the bat velocities,” the Pirates’ manager said.
The Pirates and Cubs entertained a PNC Park crowd of 17,772 with 25 hits (among a total of 38) that left bats at more than 100 mph, led by .162 hitter Jung Ho Kang’s 111.1 mph home run, according to baseballreference.com.
Two of Bell’s home runs had exit velocities from the batter’s box of more than 109 mph and they traveled 402 and 404 feet, respectively.
He also singled twice, drove in seven runs and chased the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber to the warning track in left field to track down an out. Bell finished the first day of July with 25 home runs and 77 RBIs. And nearly half a season remains to be played.
“He has my vote for July player of the month,” pitcher Trevor Williams said.
Bell, who was hitting .345 with 18 homers on May 29, had his average fall to .301 in June.
“Balls in the zone I was missing,” he said. “Balls out of the zone, I was nowhere near. Hopefully, that chapter’s closed and I can start a new one in July.”
But Bell’s homers weren’t the longest Monday night. That distinction belonged to Jose Osuna’s fourth pinch-hit homer of the season that traveled 422 feet.
“The game, it’s changed,” Hurdle said. “The actual offensive landscape, the swings are bigger.”
But it’s not just big linebacker-sized men such as Bell flexing their muscles.
“I think the biggest thing, more often than not, there’s not as much pitching in the game,” Hurdle said. “There’s a lot more throwing. “The guys who can change speeds and hit spots, there’s still an art to pitching.
“Distances are real. It’s not any one place. You can say Colorado, but balls are traveling everywhere. If they’re looking for more offense in our game, we’ve walked into that horizon.”
What was equally intriguing about the game, however, was how Williams, the winning pitcher, muddled through 5 2/3 innings, allowing nine hits, three walks and five runs, including Javier Baez’s 402-foot homer.
Williams, who had an RBI single in the fourth, has had problems finding his rhythm since returning from the injured list (side strain) three starts ago. He’s surrendered 16 runs and 26 hits in 17 1/3 innings.
“Thankfully, I had such a big cushion from the guys,” he said.
But he made a tone-setting pitch to Anthony Rizzo with the Pirates ahead, 7-4, in the fourth inning. He got the Cubs’ slugging first baseman to pop out to second base with the bases loaded.
“A click of the bat we’re down by one,” Hurdle said. “Trevor put a foot down and gave us another inning. He didn’t give up the big hit at that time with a really good hitter at the plate.”
The Cubs pitchers couldn’t say the same, and now the Pirates (40-43) are only four games out of first place in the National League Central.