The Texas Rangers, leading the American League West and wielding a formidable offense, arrived in Pittsburgh to take on a Pirates team that seemed to be falling back to Earth.
The Pirates are remarkably still hanging around the top of the National League Central despite following a 19-9 April with a 4-13 May going into the series against Texas.
Pittsburgh is rebuilding, and it relied on a couple of its younger players to take the opener of the series Monday 6-4.
Right-hander Luis Ortiz pitched a career-high 7 2/3 innings and got his first big-league win, and shortstop Tucupita Marcano hit his first career grand slam.
Marcano, 23, is a prime example of what Pittsburgh is looking for. While the team has struggled, since April 30 he has two homers, two doubles and eight RBIs and has started 11 of 18 games.
“I think he’s in a better spot (offensively),” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said.
Texas doesn’t lose often. The Rangers came into the series having won three in a row, four of five, five of seven, eight of 11 and 11 of 15.
Monday, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy saw what the Pirates saw – strong games from young players Ortiz and Marcano.
“A two-out, two-strike grand slam, those are never good,” Bochy said, adding of Ortiz, “He pounded the strike zone well. We had our hands full.”
Texas might have given itself a little positive carryover when Josh Jung hit a two-run homer in the ninth against Pirates closer David Bednar, who entered the game with a 0.53 ERA.
“It’s good to wake up there. It showed the fight in the club,” Bochy said. “It’s time to bounce back (Tuesday).”
In the middle game of the series, Texas right-hander Nathan Eovaldi (5-2, 2.83 ERA) is set to oppose Pittsburgh left-hander Rich Hill (4-3, 3.80 ERA).
Eovaldi has pitched at least five innings in each of his nine starts, has turned in six straight quality starts, and has allowed three earned runs or less in eight of those nine. He has 61 strikeouts against 10 walks.
And he’s gotten seemingly stronger, going at least seven innings in four starts in a row.
Eovaldi had a streak of 29 2/3 scoreless innings – longest in the major leagues this season — end his last time out on Eddie Rosario’s two-run homer in the second as he did not get a decision Wednesday against Atlanta.
Eovaldi is 0-0 with a 10.80 ERA in three appearances, two of them starts, in his career against the Pirates.
Hill, at 43, is one of the veterans expected to provide leadership to young players like Marcano, but he is also contributing on the field. He is 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA over his past six starts. That includes a win Wednesday when he tossed six scoreless, one-hit innings with seven strikeouts against Detroit.
“He was really good, and it was a start we needed — all right-handed lineup with some good hitters,” Shelton said.
“I thought (it) was the best curveball he had all year. … He got some funky swings.”
Hill is 3-0 with a 3.81 ERA in seven career games, five of them starts, against Texas.
— Field Level Media