When the Pirates’ lineup card was posted in the PNC Park clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, it could’ve been seen as a clean bill of health, much less a list of that night’s starters. It was also a message to both the team and anybody following it: the Pirates are back at full strength, or at least the closest they’ve been in six weeks.
Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (facial fractures) and catcher Chris Stewart (left knee) are still working their way back to health, but for the first time since early June the Bucs have their starting eight and pitching rotation in tact, and it couldn’t have come at a better time as they began, arguably, their most crucial homestand of the season with a 3-2 win over Milwaukee.
Gregory Polanco, who had been out more than a week with a nagging hamstring injury, started in right field, batted second in the order and got back to his old habits right away, working a full-count walk after falling behind in the count 1-2 against Brewers’ starting pitcher Junior Guerra.
It was Polanco’s only time reaching base, but he scored the first run of the game in the bottom of the first inning on a bases-loaded single to shallow right field by David Freese that was almost a force-out at home plate. Polanco’s long legs proved capable of beating Ramon Flores’ throw to catcher Jonathan Lucroy. He later hustled out a groundout to shortstop in full gallop with no sign of hesitation.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli, nearly six weeks removed from fracturing the hamate bone in his left hand while swinging a bat, hit sixth in the order and drove in the Pirates’ second run with a fly ball to right field that scored Andrew McCutchen for a sacrifice fly. He also drew a walk in the fourth inning, firmly re-asserting himself as the team’s top man in on-base percentage among the regulars.
Then there was the kid on mound, rookie right-hander Jameson Taillon, who was activated Tuesday afternoon from the 15-day disabled list (shoulder fatigue). His arm clearly looked fine in the early going, but it immediately became less of a concern when a line drive off the bat of Hernan Perez struck Taillon in the back of the head and ricocheted into left field.
It was a scary enough sight to make second baseman Josh Harrison drop instantly to his knees and McCutchen to raise his hands to his head, watching helplessly in center field while manager Clint Hurdle and the team’s medical staff rushed to Taillon’s aid. But Taillon assured them all he was fine, and then went out and proved it by throwing 44 of 65 pitches for strikes while allowing only one run in six innings on five hits with three strikeouts.
Perhaps it was the sign the team needed, given Taillon’s predicament and the depletion the roster had endured for more than a month. It was easy to decipher Taillon telling trainer Todd Tomczyk: “I’m alright.”
For the Pirates, it should be just as simple as an affirmation: WE’RE alright.
It took a triple by Harrison in the bottom of the ninth and an error by Milwaukee second baseman Scooter Gennett that allowed Harrison to score the winning run after closer Mark Melancon recorded his second consecutive blown save in the top half of the inning. But the bigger victory comes in having three players who are vital to this team’s playoff hopes returning and all contributing to a win.
Consider the return of Gerrit Cole four days before from a triceps strain in his throwing arm, and now the Pirates have two of their top three starting pitchers, their best catcher and one of their best hitters all back in the fold for what could be their most important three weeks of the season, while other teams in the National League playoff race also try to regain full health.
If a postseason run is going to happen for this team, it’s going to have to be earned in July and August, but at least now they can say they’re ready and able to put their best foot forward.