PITTSBURGH — It was a play, Jordy Mercer estimates, he makes “99 times out of a 100.”
That 100th time couldn’t have popped up in a worse moment for the shortstop and his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates.
Mercer’s wild throw to first on Todd Frazier’s slow grounder bounced into the stands with two outs in the ninth inning, setting the stage for a furious
Cincinnati rally as the Reds edged the Pirates 6-5 in 10 innings.
Joey Votto homered off Kyle Farnsworth (1-1) with one out in the 10th as Cincinnati pulled into a tie with Pittsburgh for the top wild-card spot in the National League. It’s a spot the Pirates appeared to have firmly in their grasp until Mercer lost his grip on a tough but makeable play.
“If I make a good throw right there, the game is over and all the stuff that happened never happens,” Mercer said. “It was tough. We played a great game, everybody played a great game, and to have it happen like that, it’s just a bad throw.”
It’s one that could have long-term ramifications on Pittsburgh’s breakout season. Pittsburgh was poised to drop its magic number to clinch a playoff spot to three after Francisco Liriano’s eight sterling innings gave the Pirates a 5-2 lead heading into the ninth.
Mark Melancon, who blew his third save of the season in a loss to San Diego on Wednesday, sandwiched outs around a single by Ryan Ludwick before things fell apart. Cincinnati’s Devin Mesoraco ended a nine-pitch duel by slapping a sharp grounder to third that Pedro Alvarez couldn’t handle, plating two runs to tie the game.
Despite the outcome, Melancon refused to place all the blame on Mercer.
“You know what, that doesn’t kill us,” Melancon said. “We still have an opportunity to win after that. This is one game. Obviously it’s late. We wanted that game. We should have won that game. It was our game to win. It doesn’t kill us.”
Maybe, but it doesn’t help either. Pittsburgh began the week 74-2 when leading after eight innings but has now lost consecutive games after handing the ball to Melancon with a lead in the top of the ninth.
“Who said it was going to be easy?” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Who said it was going to be easy? We’ve been very good winning as a team, losing as a team. ... We’ve got to find a way to finish things off.”
JJ Hoover (5-5) earned the win for the Reds, who have won four straight. Aroldis Chapman worked the 10th for his 38th save.
Farnsworth retired Brandon Phillips to start the 10th, but left fielder Starling Marte couldn’t quite grab Votto’s shot down the line, and the Reds started a pivotal three-game series with a stunning victory.
“First I was rooting for Marte not to catch it — I didn’t think that ball was going to go over,” Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. “But Hank Aaron said, ‘It’s not how far; it’s how many.’ And the ball in the front row still counts as if he had hit a tape-measure homer. That was big.”
The Pirates appeared firmly in control through eight innings. Liriano overwhelmed the Reds, allowing two runs on three hits, walking three and striking out seven. The left-hander needed only 94 pitches to record 24 outs, but told Hurdle he had no juice left after striking out Brandon Phillips to end the eighth.
“He was fantastic,” Hurdle said.
Ryan Ludwick finished 3-for-5 for the Reds, and Frazier hit his 17th home run.
Jose Tabata and Neil Walker hit consecutive homers off Cincinnati starter Mat Latos in the first and Pittsburgh appeared on its way giving itself some breathing room as the franchise pursues its first playoff spot since 1992.
PNC Park, typically a ghost town this time of year as the Pirates play out the string, was electric when Pittsburgh took the field. Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma were part of the 21st sellout of the season, but the storybook ending didn’t happen.
“That’s a game we should have won, and I think the Reds know that, too,” Melancon said.
NOTES: Hurdle was ejected in the eighth for arguing after star Andrew McCutchen was hit by reliever Sam LeCure, who was given a warning by home plate umpire Mark Carlson. ... The series continues this evening when Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett (8-11, 3.43 ERA) faces Home Bailey (11-10, 3.40). Bailey tossed his first career no-hitter in his previous start at PNC Park last September.