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Must C Collision: Molina hangs on after huge hit

PITTSBURGH -- At the dusk-hour on Aug. 28, Josh Harrison called the 2012 postseason race to order. He didn't do so by pounding a gavel, but by pounding St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina on a clean but devastating baseball play laced with playoff fever.

Harrison's passionate but vain attempt to run through Molina in the second inning did not produce a run, but the Pirates poured across plenty of others for James McDonald, who responded in kind with two-hit pitching for seven innings in the 9-0 victory.

Did Clint Hurdle locate the allegorical "switch" of which he had spoken only a day ago?

"Yeah," the Bucs manager said with a smile. "We'll see if we can keep it on -- most complete game we've played in a while. The defense really showed up a couple of times. We put some swings on a very good pitcher and got a top-shelf effort from James."

Leading the offensive charge, as he has against the Redbirds all season, was Pedro Alvarez, whose two home runs included a 469-foot shot in the sixth that is the longest by a Pirates player in PNC Park history. Alvarez went 4-for-5 and drove in four runs, improving his seasonal output against St. Louis to a .389 average (21-for-54), with six home runs and 20 RBIs.

And in the middle of it all, guess what the fans -- many of whom have been on Alvarez's case for much of the season -- asked of him? A curtain call, with which he grudgingly obliged, stepping out of the dugout for a quick wave of his cap.

In the eighth, Alvarez's 144th strikeout elicited a response unlike any of the previous 143: Cheers, as fans again stood to salute his overall night.

"Look," Hurdle told Alvarez, "all you got to do is hit two homers, get four hits -- and they'll clap for you when you strike out here."

The demonstrative response to the Cardinals' one-run victory in Monday night's series opener returned the Pirates to within two games of the second NL Wild Card spot currently in St. Louis' possession.

The Cardinals lost the game, and in the middle of it did they also lose their cool? Starting pitcher Jake Westbrook's first pitch to Harrison in the fifth plunked him on the lower leg -- leading to plate umpire Adrian Johnson's warning to both benches about further tight pitching.

Hurdle came out to object to the timing of the warnings, later explaining, "A baseball play was made at home plate. If they decided to pitch Josh Harrison tight, that's also a baseball play. We didn't have an opportunity to make that baseball play. And if they thought the intent was to hit Josh -- throw the pitcher out, and let's go on."

While Hurdle was giving Johnson a piece of his mind, the St. Louis bench apparently was giving Hurdle an even bigger piece, sparking a reaction from Rod Barajas.

"It had nothing to do with the umpires," Barajas, who had spent the night on the bench with Michael McKenry catching McDonald, explained. "But when I looked in their dugout, I saw players screaming at Clint's direction. That's what got me fired up. Clint is the leader of this team. I'm not going to let any opposition guys just sit there and yell at him. I just basically wanted to have his back."

The possibly retaliatory pitch against Harrison also led to a four-run outburst that iced the game, along with the relationship between the contending teams.

"I don't know if it was intentional. I didn't think like that," said Harrison, who tossed his bat aside and trotted to his base, "ready for [Clint] Barmes to get the job done."

The subplot had begun with Harrison on second base when Jose Tabata lashed a two-out single to right fielder Carlos Beltran, whose throw home was on target and on time. Molina steeled himself for the arrival of Harrison, who tried to ram through him, left elbow first.

"I never saw that coming," Molina said. "I was concentrating on catching the ball. I never saw him coming. The pain was on my head, but I don't know if it was straight to my head or not."

Molina commendably held on to the ball for the out, getting the best of the play. But despite giving three inches, 35 pounds and a set of the tools of ignorance, Harrison got the best of the collision. Molina stayed down and woozy for several minutes, sinking back to the ground the first couple of times he tried to stand, before making his wobbly way off the field.

And as the PNC Park crowd stood to applaud Molina's effort and courage -- there, in the Pirates' dugout, was Harrison, also clapping his hands.

"I felt like he had the plate blocked," Harrison said. "I didn't want anyone to get hurt -- prayers to him -- but it's part of the game. If they feel I did it intentionally, and tried to run the guy over and put him out ... fine; them feeling so is part of the game, too."

When the Cardinals went back on defense, Tony Cruz was the replacement for Molina, whose day-to-day injuries were later described as "upper back, left shoulder and neck strains."

The Pirates already led by that time, 1-0, on Garrett Jones' first-inning sacrifice fly, and would make it 3-0 the following inning when Alvarez hammered his 23rd homer -- with two outs, no less -- over the North Side Notch with Andrew McCutchen still on second with his leadoff double.

The Bucs added on, big time, in the fifth. Alvarez's RBI double and McKenry's run-scoring single had already made it 5-0 when the pitch off Harrison loaded the bases, still with none out. Barmes then drilled a single for two more runs and a 7-0 lead.

After Alvarez connected for the record-long homer No. 25 in the sixth, McDonald (12-6) added one more to his string of zeros against the Cardinals -- he has a 17-inning shutout streak against them, including 13 in two starts this season in which he has allowed a total of four hits -- and was done. He walked one and struck out six.

Westbrook (13-10) endured five tough innings in absorbing his seventh loss to the Bucs in eight career decisions, allowing 11 hits and seven runs, while walking four and fanning two.

"I can't figure it out," Westbrook said. "They just seem like they do a good job of putting good at-bats against me, and it's that much tougher when I'm not pitching very well, which was the case tonight."

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