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Smizik: Giles helps Pirates grind out victory

Sunday, July 29, 2001

As they of little faith made their way across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and toward various parking facilities, leaving PNC Park with about two-thirds of its original attendance, it would be nice to report the Pirates came storming and snorting off the field for their final at-bat plotting how they would overcome the six-run deficit they faced.

It would be nice to note that Manager Lloyd McClendon gathered his men in a tight circle in the dugout and exhorted them to fashion the improbable comeback necessary to beat the Houston Astros, who have, by the way, just about the best closer in baseball.

It would be sweet to say the Pirates had a plan to score seven runs, with the final four coming with Billy Wagner on the mound. But there is no plan for such a happening.

"It's just a grind," said Brian Giles, who had made the final out in the eighth inning and had no thoughts of swinging again in this game. "It's easy to get frustrated. It's a grind. You have to keep that in mind and try to grind it out."

But how do you grind it out when the first two hitters in the ninth make outs? Only once before, in 1952, had a National League team scored as many as seven runs after two were out in the ninth inning.

Worse, look who the Pirates had coming to bat.

Kevin Young, sporting a .215 batting average, kept it alive with a double to left. The offensively inept Pat Meares followed with the necessary inspiration, a crushing home run into the left-field seats. It was 8-4.

"All of a sudden that gives you a little adrenaline and guys battle and get good at-bats," Giles said.

The Pirates next three batters all spent significant time in the minors this season and had a combined batting average of .238. But pinch-hitter Adam Hyzdu singled, Tike Redmond walked and Jack Wilson singled home the fifth run.

Houston Manager Larry Dierker had seen enough. Why take chances? His team was in a race for a division title with the Chicago Cubs. Every game was vitally important. He brought on Wagner, a left-hander who regularly throws at 97 mph and often faster.

On his third pitch, Wagner hit slumping Jason Kendall in the leg with a 96 mph fastball. The bases were loaded.

That brought up Giles, the ninth batter, and the winning run.

"I haven't fared too well against [Wagner]," he said. "You know he's going to throw 100. You just try to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it."

Wagner came in high at 98 mph for ball one.

"When a guy is throwing that hard, you don't want to try to do that much," Giles said. "You want to be short to the ball and he's going to supply the power."

Giles was looking inside. He knew the Astros had retired him several times during this series on an inside pitch. Afterward, he wasn't sure exactly where the ball was. He and everyone else knew where it went.

He crushed it. A line drive that was gone from the instant bat met ball. It screamed into the right-field seats, the first home run by a left-handed batter against Wagner this season.

The Pirates, impossibly, were a 9-8 winner.

For Giles it was his 25th home run and 66th RBIs of the season. He's still somewhat of a secret around baseball but he's simply among the best in the game. He's headed for a third consecutive season of at least 35 home runs and a batting average well above .300. His acquisition from Cleveland after the 1998 season in exchange for Ricardo Rincon is one of the best trades in Pirates' history.

All the more so because he's a complete player. He has a superb batting eye -- he's the rare slugger who bats over .300 and walks more than he strikes out -- and a very good fielder. He might not have the speed or the arm to be an accomplished center fielder, but put him in left and he's excellent.

He proved that again yesterday -- the first time he took the game away from the Astros.

In the fourth, he turned and sprinted for the left-field wall as Vinny Castilla's fly ball headed toward the seats.

"I just dropped my head and guessed where the ball would come down and I guessed right," Giles said. The ball, headed for the first row of seats, landed instead in the glove of the leaping Giles.

Castilla, who had homered in his pervious at-bat, also homered in his next two. Giles had ruined a historic day for Castilla. But the hurt Giles put on the Astros was worse.

There was another game to be played a little more than three hours later as part of the first home day-night doubleheader in Pirates' history. But for these few minutes that game didn't seem too important. The Pirates were still 22 games under .500, but in the aftermath of this astonishing victory, who cared?

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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