Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave Garrett Jones a few days off this week, freeing the first baseman to explore ways to work out of a miserable funk that threatened to banish him to the bench indefinitely.
A lot of time in the batting cage and a couple of helpful hints from a new teammate provided Jones with the confidence boost he desperately needed.
Jones hit his 100th career home run and drove in four runs as the Pirates beat St. Louis 5-0 on Friday night to move into a tie with the Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central.
“Big game, big series,” Jones said. “I made some adjustments and took it into the game and I felt good. I felt aggressive and strong and it was nice to be able to contribute to the win.”
A pep talk from outfielder Marlon Byrd helped. The veteran, acquired by the Pirates in a trade with the New York Mets on Tuesday, pulled Jones aside and delivered some advice culled from 12 years of bouncing through seven big league cities.
“He came up to me and said you’re a guy who can hit 30-40 home runs,” Jones said. “He started talking to me about hitting and the few things he mentioned to me just made a lot of sense.”
Hard to argue with the results. Jones finished with three hits while matching his entire RBI total for the month in one night.
Russell Martin added his 12th homer of the season for Pittsburgh. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker got two hits as the Pirates moved within four victories of their first winning season in 21 years.
Francisco Liriano (15-6) allowed just two hits over eight innings, walking two and striking out six to reach the 15-win plateau for the first time in his eight-year career. The left-hander struggled in his previous start last weekend in San Francisco but bounced back with one of his most dominant performances of the season.
Liriano credited his resilience on a newfound maturity that allows him to move on quickly following a rough night.
“Whatever is done is done, nothing you can do about it, just focus on the next start,” Liriano said.
Having an early lead to work with certainly helped. Jones came in hitting just .119 in August but broke out against St. Louis starter Shelby Miller (12-9).
Jones hit a two-run double in the first inning to give Pittsburgh the lead, added a moon shot to the seats in right field off Miller in the fourth and followed it up with an RBI single in the fifth.
“Garrett put in a lot of work and it paid off big time for us,” Hurdle said.
The Cardinals came in surging after they erased a four-game deficit earlier this month. St. Louis arrived at PNC Park with a one-game lead and a chance to create some breathing room over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati heading into September.
Instead, things tightened up after Miller again struggled to get outs against the Pirates.
The rookie right-hander is in the midst of a breakout season but fell to 0-4 versus Pittsburgh, though his hitters haven’t done him any favors. The Cardinals have produced just one run in Miller’s four starts against the Pirates.
Miller lasted just 4 1-3 innings, giving up five runs on eight hits, walking three and striking out three. He struggled with his command, twice walking Liriano - who came in hitting just .075 - on four pitches.
“I made some mistakes with some pitches and they put good swings on them,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, they were better than us. I was just battling all night. It wasn’t a good night.”
It certainly was for Liriano, who is in the midst of a mid-career revival with the Pirates.
The 2006 All-Star pitched a complete game in a 5-1 win at St. Louis two weeks ago and was even sharper in front of a packed PNC Park that is still getting used to being in the thick of a pennant race.
The Cardinals managed only one runner in the last six innings, and no one got past second base in the entire game.
“They’re waiting for him to make a mistake out of over the plate but he’s not making many mistakes then you don’t have too many options,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “We hit some balls hard but not enough of them in a row then we gave him the lead and that made it even tougher for us.”