A thick haze of smoke hung over PNC Park, but one thing was perfectly clear to the Pittsburgh Pirates: Their odds of beating the San Diego Padres greatly improved once Blake Snell left the game.
Thanks to a two-run homer by Carlos Santana, the Pirates were clinging to a one-run lead when the Padres turned to their bullpen in a move that proved disastrous.
Sparked by two-run singles from Connor Joe and Henry Davis, the Pirates scored five runs in the seventh inning on their way to a 7-1 win Wednesday night before 14,604 at PNC Park.
The Pirates (37-42) have a chance to sweep the three-game series when they play the Padres (37-43) in the finale at 12:35 p.m. Thursday.
The Canadian wildfires caused an unhealthy air quality index and poor visibility in Pittsburgh that improved over the course of the day and prevented a postponement.
Snell (4-7) recorded his sixth consecutive quality start, giving up two runs on three hits and two walks on 102 pitches in six innings. After recording at least 11 strikeouts in each of his last three starts, the left-hander mixed his curveball and changeup to strike out 10 Pirates.
“This is a guy who hasn’t given up runs in awhile,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said of Snell, who had allowed one run in his previous five starts. “He had been pitching really well. We just kept going. He threw 102 pitches, and we were able to keep grinding and stayed with it. Nice job because he threw the ball well. He executed the fastball to both sides of the plate. Really, really threw the fastball well. But we just stayed with it and kept going, then had some timely hits.”
The Pirates made Snell pay for a mistake in the first inning, when Davis hit a two-out single to left field in the first inning and the switch-hitting Santana followed by smacking a first-pitch fastball 427 feet to left field for his eighth home run and a 2-0 Pirates lead.
The previous 14 home runs at PNC Park were solo shots — seven by the Pirates, seven by their opponents — so Santana’s two-run homer was a welcome change that gave the Pirates a necessary cushion.
“He’s a great competitor, a really good pitcher,” Pirates starter Mitch Keller said of Snell. “He strikes out the world, too, so he’s a tough guy to face — especially throwing 97, 98 from the left side. It’s a tough game, and for us to scratch two there in the first was huge. Giving us an early lead kind of deflated them a little bit and worked to our advantage.”
Keller (9-3) allowed one run on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts on 104 pitches in six innings. Keller tossed 57 pitches through the first two innings, both of which ended with a runner stranded on third. In the first inning, Juan Soto drew a two-out walk and went from first to third on Manny Machado’s single but Keller got Xander Bogaerts into a fielder’s choice.
In the second, Matt Carpenter drew the two-out walk and advanced to third on Trent Grisham’s double to right before Keller got Ha-Seong Kim to fly out to center.
Keller and catcher Austin Hedges decided to change the plan, eschewing the spin pitches in favor of his fastballs.
“Definitely not the start we wanted. Obviously, scoreless innings but a lot of pitches to get through those,” Keller said. “Hedges and I talked between the second and third inning there and said, ‘Screw trying to strike them out’ because they were looking for spin or whatever they were looking for. The mentality was, let’s get some quick outs and get through as many innings as we can.”
They focused on the sinker and cutter to retire the next nine batters on 24 pitches, getting six consecutive groundouts in the third and fourth innings.
Fernando Tatis Jr. finally got a hit off Keller by starting the sixth with a bloop single to shallow center. With two outs, Keller got Bogaerts in an 0-2 count before he fouled off four consecutive pitches. On Keller’s eighth pitch of the at-bat — and 100th of the game — Bogaerts sliced a single to right field to score Tatis and cut it to 2-1.
Keller struck out Jake Cronenworth to protect the Pirates’ lead. Right-hander Carmen Mlodzinski gave up a single to Carpenter but struck out Grisham looking and Kim swinging.
The Pirates padded their lead in the seventh against Padres reliever Nick Martinez, who allowed five runs on four hits, one walk and one hit batsman without recording an out.
They loaded the bases when Nick Gonzales reached on an infield single, Jack Suwinski walked and Jared Triolo was hit by a pitch on his right hand while attempting a bunt. (Triolo made his major-league debut, starting at third base for the injured Ke’Bryan Hayes, and got his first career hit with a leadoff single to left off lefty Ray Kerr in the eighth.)
“It was a sweet inning,” Triolo said. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened after I got hit by the pitch, but it was just great.”
Josh Palacios pinch-hit for Austin Hedges and knocked a low liner that Tatis couldn’t corral to score Gonzales for a 3-1 lead. Joe followed with a flare to center to drive in Suwinski and Triolo and make it 5-1.
When McCutchen singled to left to load the bases again with no outs, the Padres turned to Luis Garcia. But Davis sliced a single down the first-base line, scoring Palacios and Joe for a 7-1 Pirates lead.
Yerry De Los Santos got through the heart of the Padres order with three groundouts in the eighth. In the ninth, Cody Bolton loaded the bases with two outs before getting Kim to ground out to Triolo.
The four Pirates rookies who have made their major-league debuts in the past two weeks all contributed as Mlodzinski struck out two in a scoreless seventh and Davis, Gonzales and Triolo combined for four hits, three runs and two RBIs.
“I think it’s just about getting the next man up,” said Davis, who was 2 for 4 with two RBIs. “That’s winning baseball, whether it’s a good at-bat or the guy who sees a lot of pitches sets up the next guy. It’s not always about reaching base or getting hits. Move guys over, run the pitch count a little bit, let the guy behind you see more pitches. Little things like that all add up.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .