By John Perrotto
Photo: David Hague
PITTSBURGH — The Pirates’ starting rotation is undoubtedly weaker since A.J. Burnett landed on the disabled list last Friday with a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow.
Yet the Pirates’ bullpen is undoubtedly stronger since closer Joakim Soria was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in a trade last Thursday.
Soria gives the Pirates a strong right-handed set-up option to pair with left-hander Tony Watson to pitch in front of closer Mark Melancon, who leads the major leagues with 34 saves in 35 opportunities.
What general manager Neal Huntington envisioned when he gave shortstop prospect JaCoby Jones up for Soria played out like planned Wednesday night as the Pirates downed the Chicago Cubs 7-5 at PNC Park to gain a split of the rain-shorted two-game series.
Soria came on to pitch the seventh inning after the Pirates scored twice in the sixth to take a 6-4 lead. He retired the side in order and has not allowed a run in his three appearances with the Pirates after converting 23 of 26 save opportunities for the Tigers.
Watson worked a scoreless eighth, giving up one hit, before the Pirates added a run in the bottom of the inning. He has a 2.59 ERA in 50 games this season.
Melancon gave up a rare run — his ERA is still a stellar 1.44 in 51 games— but struck out Dexter Fowler, who has reached base in 19 straight games, with a runner on second to end the game.
“It’s always been a mindset here that you want your starter to finish seven innings and then we’ll figure out the rest,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Now if they can go six innings, we can figure out the rest.
“I like those guys in the bullpen. I like their pedigree. You’re going to have a special pitcher out there from the seventh inning on.”
On a night when the late-inning trio closed out a win and kept the Pirates 3 ½ games in front of the San Francisco Giants for the first National League wild and within 5 ½ games of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, yet another reliever earned the win.
Left-hander Antonio Bastrado (3-1), who has knocked his ERA down to 3.82 through 40 appearances following a dreadful start, threw only one pitch but got the win.
After the Cubs used home runs by rookie Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo earlier in the sixth to tie the score at 4-4, Bastardo came on with the bases loaded and two outs and got pinch hitter Chris Coghlan to hit an inning-ending groundout.
“It was the biggest pitch of the night, the absolute biggest of the night,” Hurdle said, then added for emphasis, “the biggest at bat of the night, the biggest pitch of the night.”
and Andrew McCutchen both hit solo home runs and also drove in runs during the two-run sixth inning that put the Pirates ahead for good, 6-4.
Polanco led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run, his fifth of the season, off Cubs starter Dan Haren to open the scoring. McCutchen hit a solo shot in the third, his 16th to make it 3-0.
After the Cubs tied it 4-4, Polanco hit a go-ahead single off losing pitcher Travis Wood in the sixth and McCutchen added a sacrifice fly two batters later.
Polanco has stepped up for the Pirates as the leadoff hitter at a crucial time since third baseman Josh Harrison went on the disabled list July 6 with a torn ligament in this left thumb. Polanco is 28-for-99 (.282) with 13 walks in 25 games with Harrison out, raising his season batting average to .245.
“He’s doing everything you can ask a leadoff hitter to do,” Hurdle said. “He’s really done a fine, fine job when we’ve needed him to put a foot down in that spot.”
Said Polanco: “I have a lot of confidence. I really trust my hands, trust my approach and feel like I’m going to have a good at-bat every time.”
The 23-year-old also believes batting leadoff is making him a better hitter.
“Definitely,” he said. “I’m seeing more pitches and that means the pitcher has to throw me something good to hit in every at-bat or I’ll just take a walk.”
–Locke allowed just one run and two hits through the first five innings as the Pirates built a 4-1 lead but fell apart in the sixth as a pair of left-handed hitters took him deep. Rookie Kyle Schwarber hit a two-run home run then, one out later, Anthony Rizzo tied with a solo blast that knocked Locke from the game.
“I hung a couple of breaking pitches and they him them out, that’s pretty much it, short and sweet,” Locke said.
“They’re an aggressive-hitting team and I gave them a couple of good pitches to hit there.”
Locke allowed four runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings with one walk and four strikeouts. He has a 5.48 ERA in four starts since the All-Star break after posting a 1.59 mark in his final six outings of the first half.
Locke had allowed only one home run in his previous 56 innings before Schwarber and Rizzo connected.
–Harrison is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment next Tuesday with Class AAA Indianapolis. Shortstop Jordy Mercer, who is been on the disabled list since July 20 with a sprained left knee, is expected to join Harrison in Indy three days later.
Hurdle said there is no timetable for when Harrison and Mercer would be activated, though he indicated both players would likely need a minimum of 20-25 plate appearances in order to get their timing back at the plate.
“It’s not going to be a 48-hour or 72-hour shuttle, it won’t be one day and it won’t be two days,” Hurdle said. “There is going to be a commitment of time I think and reps. We are never comfortable throwing them out nine innings the first time they are out on the field.
“They’ll play seven innings the first time out, get a day (off) then build up to the point where they can show they can play nine innings on back-to-back days.”
Mercer began taking batting practice last weekend and ran the bases at close to full speed before Wednesday night’s game while Harrison hit against live pitching Tuesday for the first time since his surgery.
–Left-hander Francisco Liriano will start Saturday afternoon against the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park instead of Sunday night as originally planned.
The move keeps Liriano on his normal four days of rest after he pitched just two innings Monday night against the Cubs in a game that was eventually postponed because of rain.
It also enables the Pirates to break up the three lefties that were starting in consecutive turns n Liriano, J.A. Happ and Locke.
Right-hander Charlie Morton will start Sunday night instead of Saturday and on six days of rest since his previous start last Sunday at Cincinnati.
–Rookie right-handed reliever Deolis Guerra was claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Indians after being designated for assignment. He pitched in 10 games for the Pirates and was 2-0 with a 6.48 ERA.