PITTSBURGH - You look out from home plate and you see the hotels and office buildings popping from the blue-and-white background of an early July sky. You see a lush green outfield that appears to run into the river. And you see a steel suspension bridge that connects the two, the downtown skyline, equal parts glass modernity and bricks-and-mortar industry, and the sparkling stadium that would be one of the most impressive venues in the majors if it could only attract a regular audience of baseball fans.
Anybody who isn't consumed by parochial rivalry can't help but wonder about a postseason atmosphere here in the Steel City, and the 3 days the Phillies just spent at PNC Park suggested that it would be a pretty darn good one. But they also suggested that the Pirates' path to the playoffs is anything but clear.
Yesterday, the Phillies wrapped up a 10-game road trip by walking out of Pittsburgh with a series win for the first time since 2008, a 6-4 victory pushing their overall season mark to 41-45. Nothing about the performance made you think that it will foreshadow a pre-All-Star break surge that makes the front office think twice about trading some of its more valuable assets. Instead, it made you wonder about the Pirates' ability to avoid a fate similar to the one they endured last season, when they went from 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8 to four games under .500 at the end of the regular season.
"All we care about is winning the ballgame," said rightfielder Delmon Young, who went 2-for-4 to improve his batting average to .273. "We're playing the best team in baseball right here. Their pitching has been carrying [them] and their offense has been dragging behind, so it doesn't necessarily mean you need offense to win ballgames. You need timely hitting and pitching and defense."
For the first four innings of the afternoon, young Pirates righthander Gerrit Cole pitched as advertised, striking out four batters without issuing a walk. The Phillies threatened in the third, getting a two-out double from Chase Utley that put runners on second and third, but Jimmy Rollins struck out swinging at a 98-mph fastball to end the frame. Then came the fifth, and along with it the cracks in the Pirates' foundation.
Ben Revere turned an RBI line drive in front of Andrew McCutchen into three bases, sprinting hard to second on the centerfielder's throw to the plate and then third after said throw sailed wide of Russell Martin, cutting the deficit to 2-1. Utley ended up grounding out to leave Revere on third, but the throw that got him there was not the first errant one unleashed by the Pirates outfield during the series. Then, in the sixth, manager Clint Hurdle plucked Cole from the game with only 78 pitches to his credit. That meant turning over two baserunners to Vin Mazzaro, a middle reliever who has good numbers this season, but a 5.22 ERA in his previous four. The Phillies took advantage, getting consecutive singles from Young, Kevin Frandsen and Carlos Ruiz before Mazzaro hit Cole Hamels with a pitch. By the time the inning was over, they had scored four runs to take a 5-2 lead.
Hamels and the Phillies' bullpen took care of the rest, with Hamels doing most of the heavy lifting. The lefty held the Pirates to two runs - one unearned - and did not walk a batter while striking out eight in seven innings. Justin De Fratus loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth and ended up allowing a pair of runs, but Jonathan Papelbon shut down the ninth for his 17th save in 21 opportunities.
Now, the Phillies head back to Citizens Bank Park, where tonight they will start a 10-game home stand that leads into the All-Star break. Seven of those games are against NL East rivals Atlanta and Washington, giving them one final opportunity to show they are capable of climbing back into the postseason race before the start of the frantic couple of weeks that lead up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. The Pirates are one of the teams that will look to reinforce their roster. Clearly, they are better than they were at this time last year. But in a crowded NL Central, that might not be good enough. Credit the Phillies for taking advantage.
"We just have to keep playing; otherwise, the clock ticks and serious decisions are made, and I don't want that to happen, because there's a reason why I stayed here, to win," Hamels said. "You want to win for the city, and I know the guys in this clubhouse do, too, so guys have to take care of their own business and be the best they possibly can every day, because you can't take a day off, because it's ultimately coming down to the wire and crunch time, so you have to obviously be a man about it and play a lot harder than I guess we have."
DN Members Only: Darin Ruf is still trying to learn the outfield.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy