In the late innings, it looked like .500 was going to slip from the Pirates' grasp once again.
After the Bucs had staked themselves to a 2-0 lead through six innings against the Astros on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park thanks to a strong pitching performance from starter James McDonald, the bullpen came unglued for the second time in the series, allowing Houston to take a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth.
Then Ryan Doumit stepped to the plate for some heroics. The catcher cracked a three-run homer over the left field wall with one out in the home half of the eighth pushing Pittsburgh to a 5-4 lead it would not relinquish as Joel Hanrahan nailed down his 10th save to give the Pirates a win and their first .500 record on Mother's Day since 2002.
"I was looking for a pitch I could handle, I got one, got good wood on it and the rest is history," Doumit told ROOT Sports' Lacee Collins after the game.
The late blast saved McDonald's best outing of the season. The righty conceded no runs on just three hits and two walks in six innings and racked up a career-high eight strikeouts to push his personal record to 3-2.
With the performance, McDonald lowered his season ERA more than a full run from 6.75 to 5.65. Doumit was impressed with his pitcher's day from his front row seat behind the plate.
"He had everything going," Doumit said. "He had great command and he had that curveball working. That curveball's his go-to pitch and when he's got it going as he had tonight, he's tough to hit."
The Pirates will now prepare to host the Los Angeles Dodgers in a four game set Monday through Thursday at PNC Park, while trying to clear the .500 mark fans have yearned for through 18 consecutive losing seasons.
After entering Sunday's contest only 2.5 games behind division leader St. Louis, however, manager Clint Hurdle has his sights set higher than just posting more wins than losses.
"We're on the road to where we want to go," Hurdle said. "[.500] would be one of the mile markers that you need to get by, but now we have to work on the shelf life."
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been lingering near .500 for the past several days and will have yet another chance to reach that milestone in their series finale against the Houston Astros at 1:35 PM Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.
The Pirates are currently 16-17. While the Bucs have, sensibly, emphasized that reaching .500 is not their goal and that they would like to do much better than that, a .500 record in mid-May would be a welcome sign for a fanbase frustrated by 18 consecutive losing seasons.
The game pits two starting pitchers who have struggled so far this year. The Astros' starter will be J.A. Happ, whose problems have resulted mostly from his five home runs allowed in 34.2 innings so far this season. The Bucs, meanwhile, will send James McDonald, who has had issues with his command and control. McDonald, however, is coming off his best start of the season, a win against the Padres in which he struck out five and allowed two runs over six innings.