PITTSBURGH (AP) – Aramis Ramirez can’t really describe it but he can sense it, the feeling that permeates a clubhouse during one of those summers that offers the promise of an even more exciting fall.
At the moment, the Pittsburgh Pirates are swimming in it.
The veteran third baseman mashed a three-run homer off Chris Rusin, J.A. Happ won his third straight start and the Pirates improved to a season-best 30 games over .500 following a 4-3 win over Colorado on Saturday night.
Entering the final weeks of an 18-year career that has produced nearly 400 home runs but zero World Series rings, the three-time All-Star is trying his best to enjoy each improbable moment as they pile one upon the other with no signs of abating.
“It’s fun to be in a pennant race,” Ramirez said. “That’s what you play for as a player, especially for myself being my last year. I’ve got something to play for every single day, it couldn’t be better than that.”
And at the moment, few teams in baseball are as hot as the Pirates. Pittsburgh is 14-3 over its last 17 games and 79-49 heading into the last day of August, heady territory for a franchise that won 79 games in a season twice between 1993 and 2012.
“The goal is to win the division,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re doing some things that have some significance I’ll be mindful of later. We’re in second place and we want to get to first place.”
The Pirates remained within 3 1-2 games of first-place St. Louis in the hyper-competitive NL Central behind another strong performance from Happ. Brought in to bolster the back end of the rotation, Happ (7-7) won his third straight decision after giving up one run and five hits in 5 2-3 innings and is 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his last four starts. Mark Melancon survived a rare rocky ninth to collect his major-league leading 43rd save.
“(Happ’s) confidence is in as good a place as it has been all year,” Hurdle said. “He’s fit in with the team. It has embraced him.”
Happ wasn’t exactly crisp but managed to work his way out of a tough spot in the third with minimal damage and received a boost from reliever Arquimedes Caminero when the Rockies put two runners on with two outs in the sixth.
Caminero extended his scoreless streak to 17 1-3 innings after getting Nick Hundley to ground out to third to end the threat in the sixth and breezing through the Rockies in the seventh.
Melancon moved into a tie with Jose Mesa for the second-most saves in a season in club history even though he was pushed around in the ninth. Ben Paulsen led off with a single and Hundley followed with a towering two-run homer to left. Brandon Barnes singled to put the tying run at first but pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso popped out and Charlie Blackmon lined into a double play to end it.
Hundley, Paulsen and Barnes had two hits each for the Rockies. Rusin (4-7), tagged for a career-high 11 runs in two innings of a loss to the Mets last Saturday, allowed just one runner past second over his final five innings but received little help as the Rockies fell to 2-6 in their last eight games.
“Our team didn’t win so it is what it is,” Rusin said. “As a pitcher you want to pitch your team to win and I wasn’t able to do that.”
Pittsburgh raced to a quick lead when Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen singled with one out and Ramirez took a hanging curveball and put it well into the bleachers in left, his first home run at PNC Park as a member of the Pirates since July 20, 2003.
The Pirates made it a point to avoid a splashy move and instead focus on productive if low-profile veterans at the deadline. The moves have paid off handsomely so far. Pittsburgh is 19-7 in August and surging toward September and beyond.
“We have areas we all know we need to improve on in the season,” Hurdle said. “We all strive to play our best ball the later it gets.”
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