CHICAGO – Russell Martin picked a bad time to make his first error of the season.
Martin’s poor throw in the 11th inning set up the winning run in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 4-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs Sunday.
There were runners on first and second with no outs when Martin tried to pick off Anthony Rizzo at second and the ball sailed into center field. Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano each moved up a base on the veteran catcher’s first error since Sept. 11 for the New York Yankees at Boston.
“I lost grip coming up on the transfer,” Martin said. “Sometimes you can get the grip as you’re going, but I just never really had any grip on the ball and it took off.”
After Luis Valbuena was walked intentionally, pinch hitter Dioner Navarro drove in Rizzo with a sacrifice fly off Bryan Morris (4-3).
“Ninety percent of the time when you pinch-hit in key situations, I don’t want to sound cocky, but I kind of like to be in that situation,” Navarro said. “It’s the best against me and I love the challenge every time I get the opportunity.”
Navarro is 6 for 14 as a pinch hitter this season with two home runs and four RBIs.
“Navarro has been doing it all year, constantly off the bench and getting the job done,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “It’s a nice asset to have. Our bench has done a good job all year.”
Pittsburgh (53-34) has dropped three of four to fall into a tie with St. Louis for the NL Central lead and the best record in baseball. But Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was quick to defend Martin and pointed to some other key situations that hurt his club.
“We’re playing to win,” Hurdle said. “If you’ve watched that guy play all year, you just move on. Throw against the bag and he’s out. What hurt us earlier was the fourth and sixth innings with a runner at third and we weren’t able to score them. Those were things that kind of challenged us a little bit.”
The situation in the sixth was particularly glaring, coming with the game tied at 2. The Pirates had runners on second and third with one out, but Jordy Mercer bounced into a fielder’s choice that retired Pedro Alvarez in a rundown between third and home. Pedro Strop then came in and struck out pinch hitter Gaby Sanchez to end the inning.
The Cubs grabbed a 3-2 lead when Scott Hairston connected for a pinch-hit solo homer against Tony Watson in the eighth inning. It was Hairston’s eighth homer.
The Pirates were down to their last strike in the ninth when Starling Marte drove a 3-2 pitch from closer Kevin Gregg over the wall in center for his ninth homer.
“We never quit, that’s something you can’t teach,” Pittsburgh starter A. J. Burnett said. “Just play until the last out’s made and that’s what we do. You saw Marte, he fouled off some tough pitches, he battled and you saw what happens.”
It was Gregg’s second blown save in 17 opportunities. He began the inning with consecutive strikeouts against Jordy Mercer and pinch hitter Travis Snider.
“We were one strike away there,” Gregg said. “I made some good pitches in to him, made him conscious of the ball in. I felt like I made a pretty good pitch away from him and he did a good job of hitting and going to get it.”
But Navarro rescued Gregg in the 11th inning, and Matt Guerrier (3-4) pitched two scoreless innings for his first win with Chicago.
Burnett came off the 15-day disabled list after being sidelined by a strained right calf and pitched five solid innings. He allowed two runs, one earned, and three hits.
“Nothing not to like,” Hurdle said of Burnett’s performance. “The ball came out of his hand very crisp, pitched efficiently.”
The weekend performance inspired Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva.
“We know we have a better team than the record shows,” he said. “We’ve lost some heartbreaking close games. You take back at least half of those games and we’re in a better position. Right now, I think it’s important for us to keep playing well into the All-Star break and have a strong second half.”
Pitcher Ryan Reid was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis to make room for Burnett. ... The Pirates start a six-game homestand today that includes three-game series against Oakland and the Mets. Monday’s game features a pair of All-Star pitcher, with Jeff Locke (8-1, 2.12 ERA) facing the A’s Bartolo Colon (11-3, 2.78 ERA).