Estrada spurs eye-opening, pitching-duel win

The Pittsburgh Pirates are feeling playoff pressure. The Milwaukee Brewers, conversely, are playing free and loose these days, unburdened by any remaining expectations.

Yet, undeniably, the Brewers showed some encouraging signs during Saturday’s air-tight, 3-2 victory.

Milwaukee’s Corey Hart provided the obvious jolt of adrenaline, hammering a solo, walk-off homer off Pittsburgh’s star reliever, Joel Hanrahan. But Brewers starter Marco Estrada was especially impressive all night; the 29-year-old pitcher attacked the strike zone early and often, matching Pittsburgh ace A.J. Burnett’s dominance.

Estrada ended the night with the following stat-line: 7 innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, 1 walk, 4 hits allowed to go along with 1 earned run. He spotted his modest fastball nicely, mixed in the occassional 76-mph bender, and, as a result, nearly walked away with his third consecutive win before getting saddled with a no-decision.

“Burnett was great, but Marco was just as good,” Hart noted in a postgame, FOX Sports Wisconsin interview. “Marco pitched a great game and kept us in the ballgame.”

Said Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke: “Estrada did a really good job again, locating well. … Good changeups, good breaking balls.”

Both of Saturday’s starting pitchers had six strikeouts through the game’s first three innings. Burnett, the proud owner of a 15-5 record this season, unleashed several nasty breaking balls. In the sixth frame, for example, Milwaukee’s Nyjer Morgan almost fell over at the plate while finishing off a three-pitch strikeout by flailing at a Burnett delivery in the dirt. Burnett held Milwaukee hitless through five innings, and, all told, yielded just two total hits in 6.2 innings of work.

But Estrada was the main highlight on this night. He inspired an outburst from the Miller Park crowd in the sixth frame, for instance, as he struck out Pirates standout Pedro Alvarez to end a bases-loaded threat. Estrada won an 11-pitch showdown with Alvarez in that at-bat.

“I’ve had a lot of battles before,” said Estrada, “but with the bases loaded, with a 3-2 count? (That) was up there.

“It was exciting — just an exciting game, overall.”

This game meant little in the grand scheme of things for the Brewers (64-68). Yet, it provided brief glimmers of hope. Estrada looked like a reliable option for the starting rotation in 2013. Hart hit his 26th homer of the season, and his second roundtripper in as many nights. Plus, the Brewers won their 40th home game of 2012.

This game displayed cracks in the Pirates’ facade, too, like their inability to prevent stolen bases (the Brewers swiped four bases Saturday).

The Pirates (70-62), who endured an 11-17 record in August, are wilting under late-season pressure. The Brewers, although playing with far less at stake, seem to be taking strides; they’ve won 10 of their last 12 contests, after all.

It won’t be easy for the Brewers to overtake the likes of Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pittsburgh in the NL Central’s hierarchy in 2013. But Saturday may have provided a blue-print for how to do so: pitch well, play solid defense and get timely hitting.

“It was a well-played ballgame,” Roenicke noted. “Nice game.”

said Hart: “To win games like this is important for us. We’ve got to just keep grinding.

“We’re just trying to hang in there and surprise people,” the Brewers’ slugger added. “You know, we were out of it a long time ago. … So we’re just trying to stay focused.”