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September 15, 2016

Home run-happy Pirates run away with a win over Phillies

When Jerad Eickhoff hung a pitch up in the zone with a full count to John Jaso in the first inning, and the Pirates leadoff hitter deposited the ball 412-feet from home plate and into the Pittsburgh bullpen, it wasn’t a big deal. 

Eickhoff kindly held his glove out for the umpire to give him another ball. He still had an entire game in front of him.

But when Eickhoff left another 3-2 pitch over the heart of the plate six innings later, and watched as another ball sailed over the wall, he dropped into a catcher’s crouch in defeat.

Eickhoff stayed there until Jordy Mercer, the fourth Pirate to hit a home run off of him Wednesday night, reached third en route to the plate after delivering a crushing three-run home run against the second-year Phillies pitcher.

"That can’t happen," Eickhoff said afterward. "With two guys on there and Mercer in the box, I’ve got to execute. That was a key point in the game. I think if I executed that pitch, it would have been a completely different ballgame."

Eickhoff probably should have been out of the inning earlier – with two outs and a runner on second, Maikel Franco couldn't corral a hard hopper to his glove side – but it didn’t matter, really. The hat trick of homers Eickhoff allowed before the gut punch of a seventh inning was enough to sink the pitcher and the home team.

Mercer, Jaso, Sean Rodriguez, and Andrew McCutchen all homered off Eickhoff – and McCutchen added another home run off of Frank Herrmann – as the struggling Pirates managed a split of a four-game series with a 15-2 victory over the Phillies.

"The only thing that gave me any solace at all tonight was looking up at the scoreboard and seeing Kansas City losing 14-0," manager Pete Mackanin said. "After the (seventh) innings, the roof fell off."

McCutchen finished the night 3-for-5 with three runs scored and three RBI. After the Pirates scored seven in the game's first eight innings, McCutchen chipped in with an RBI single in the visiting team's eight-run ninth inning, one of the more hard-to-watch half innings in the 2016 season at Citizens Bank Park.

Still, it was Eickhoff, who hadn't allowed more than two home runs in his first 29 starts of 2016, who shouldered the blame.

"The first three home runs, I have no problems with those," he said. "Those happen. Solo home runs don’t hurt you. But the three-run home run, those just kill you. Those are frustrating. The biggest thing is I feel like I let the guys down in here. These guys are fighting. I have to live with that. That’s the most frustrating thing."

It was McCutchen’s third multi-home run game of the season and the 12th of his career. The former MVP is trying to breathe a finale gasp of air into the Pirates season: they entered Citizens Bank Park on Monday having lost 11 of their last 13 games and quickly fading away in the National League Wild Card race.

During batting practice, McCutchen reportedly told former Pittsburgh teammate (and former Phillie) A.J. Burnett, who was at the game, that he would hit two home runs on Thursday night.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have lost 14 of their last 20 games. They have won back-to-back games just once in the last month, in their first two games at the beginning of Miami last week.

Chad Kuhl, the Pirates left-handed rookie out of Middletown, Del., didn’t allow a Phillies batter to reach base until Tommy Joseph led off the fifth inning with a double. After striking out the side an inning earlier, Kuhl received a hearty applause from a good portion of the season-low 15,247 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Kuhl fan club took over the seating area behind the visiting dugout: the University of Delaware product had over 100 friends and family at the ballpark on Thursday night.

"I thought he had good movement on his fastball, good breaking ball, located well," Mackanin said of the left-hander who used to attend Phillies games as a kid.

Odubel Herrera (2-for-3 with a double and a run scored) was one of the few bright spots in the Phillies lineup. Herrera is hitting .321 (9-for-28) with a .441 OBP in his last 10 games. It's a positive sign for the All-Star outfielder and the Phils, since Herrera entered Labor Day hitting .229 with a .285 OBP in his previous 46 games. Good grief. 

"Hopefully, that will get him going for the rest of the season," Mackanin said. "He looks a little better, a little more in control. It’d be nice for us if he could continue that for the rest of the season because we need all the hitting we can get. 

• The Pirates scored eight two-out runs in the top of the ninth inning off a collection of Severino Gonzalez and Colton Murray. The Bucs sent 12 batters to the plate, seven of them collected hits and two more walked. Surprisingly, the Pirates did not hit any home runs in the ninth inning, though.

 • At least the Phillies starting pitchers still have an impressive streak intact? Maikel Franco's seventh-inning error (it was originally ruled an infield single) meant that the three-run home run Eickhoff allowed brought in three unearned runs. The Phils rotation has now gone 13 consecutive starts with three earned runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since April 27-May 11 in 2011 (also 13 straight starts).

Eickhoff, who had never allowed more than two home runs in a game in his career prior to Thursday, is only the third Phillies starter since 1900 to allowed four or more home runs in a game yet allow three earned runs or fewer. Don Carman is the last Phillies pitcher (and last major leaguer, too) to pull that off, on June 19, 1987, at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets.

Before Carman, the last MLB starter with four or more home runs allowed while three earned runs or fewer was Whitey Ford on July 2, 1966 against the Washington Senators. 

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