by: Rob Biertempfel, TribLIVE Updated:
Tony Sanchez rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, the better to see the baseball.
Early Thursday morning at PNC Park, Sanchez ended the longest baseball game ever played in Pittsburgh by lining an RBI single to lift the Pirates over the Chicago Cubs, 4-3, in 16 innings.
This article was written by Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE.
The game lasted 5 hours, 55 minutes. By the time Sanchez walked to the plate, the crowd of 29,762 had dwindled to a few hundred diehards.
“Well, I've played 25 innings before (in the minors), so this wasn't really that bad,” Sanchez said with a laugh.
With one out in the 16th, Starling Marte singled and moved Jose Tabata to third base. Sanchez, the last bench player for either team, lined an RBI single to left off Carlos Villanueva, the Cubs' ninth pitcher of the game.
“I was trying to stay awake as long as possible,” Sanchez said. “It's not easy sitting down for 16 innings. I rode the bike, took some swings, tried to stay loose and tried to stay as warm as possible.”
Before things got crazy and Wednesday night morphed into early Thursday morning, Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton pitched six strong innings.
Pounding the inside part of the plate, Morton blanked the Cubs' lefty-heavy lineup on four hits, walked one and struck out six.
Morton worked six innings but couldn't go any deeper after being struck on the left thumb by a line drive. X-rays were negative, according to manager Clint Hurdle.
Morton left with a two-run lead and was in line to get the win until the ninth inning, when closer Jason Grilli gave up the tying run.
Last year, Grilli did not blow a save chance until June 19, as the Pirates went 37-0 in games when they led after eight innings.
In the 12th, Anthony Rizzo hit a solo homer off Jeanmar Gomez to give the Cubs a short-lived 3-2 lead.
Jose Veras got the first out in the bottom of the 12th, then walked Travis Ishikawa and hit Jordy Mercer with a pitch. Clint Barmes pinch-ran for Ishikawa.
Jose Tabata reached on a fielder's choice; Mercer was out at second base and Barmes went to third. Starling Marte yanked an RBI single to left field.
The Pirates wasted a chance to win it in the 13th. They had the bases loaded with none out, but Barmes grounded into a double play and Tabata grounded out.
The Cubs stacked their starting lineup with six left-handers, including switch-hitter Emilio Bonifacio. Over the past six seasons, lefties hit .327 with a .907 on-base plus slugging percentage against Morton.
“They've got a book on him,” Hurdle said.
Morton hopes to write a few new chapters. In spring training, he came in hard and often against lefties with the sinker, four-seamer, curve and change.
“That sinker is always going to be his No. 1 strength,” Hurdle said. “But he's also got some weapons to make left-handers uneasy and uncomfortable.”
That started to happen in 2011, when Morton changed his arm slot and began throwing his sinker again. Pitching guru Jim Benedict challenged Morton to start filling up the strike zone.
“Benny told me, ‘Don't be afraid of contact,' and now I'm not,” Morton said. “I love hitting bats, because I know I can get the ball on the ground.”
Morton got only three groundball outs but could have had two more if not for errors. After escaping a second-inning jam, he settled in and fired first-pitch strikes to eight of the next 10 batters.
“I've got to get in a rhythm and throw strike one,” Morton said. “That's the biggest thing. When I throw pitch one for a strike, I'm in a good spot.”
The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the second, Neil Walker looped a single into left field. Ishikawa drew a full-count walk. Right-hander Edwin Jackson fell behind 2-1 against Mercer, who lined an RBI single to left.
Aided by two errors, the Cubs threatened again in the fifth. With one out, Ryan Kalish's grounder was booted by shortstop Mercer.
Jackson bunted. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez fielded the ball cleanly, but his throw to second base was a one-hopper that ticked off the heel of Mercer's glove. Kalish was safe, and Alvarez was charged with the error.
Morton kept his cool and got out of it. Bonifacio flied out to center, then Luis Valbuena swung over a curveball for strike three.
With one out in the sixth, Rizzo walked and Nate Schierholtz hit a liner that caromed off Morton. Mercer plucked the ball out of the air and doubled off Rizzo at first base.
It was Morton's final batter. Tony Watson took over in the seventh and struck out the side.
While Morton was dodging trouble, Jackson cruised through the middle three innings. He retired 10 straight batters after Mercer's RBI single.
The Pirates made it 2-0 in the sixth when Marte scored on a fielding error by shortstop Starlin Castro.
Instant replay helped the Cubs get a run in the eighth inning off Mark Melancon. With the bases loaded and one out, Schierholtz hit a grounder to second baseman Walker to start what originally was ruled a 4-6-3 double play.
Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged, saying Mercer came off the second base bag before getting Walker's throw. Replay confirmed it, the call was overturned and the score went to 2-1.
Grilli failed to deliver in his first save chance of the season. Junior Lake dumped a single into center. With two outs, Bonifacio and Valbuena hit back-to-back singles to score Lake and tie it at 2.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.