Pirates look to continue winning ways at PNC Park

Pittsburgh among only three NL teams with at least 50 victories at home in 2013

Pirates look to continue winning ways at PNC Park

The Pittsburgh Pirates posted an excellent record at PNC Park last season, going 50-31 in games that were played at the beautiful ballpark on the North Shore. The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals were the only other National League clubs that won at least 50 games at home in 2013.

Manager Clint Hurdle's Bucs got off on the right foot in that department again here in 2014 by taking two out of three games from both the Chicago Cubs and the defending NL Central Division champion Cardinals during the first homestand of the year.

Things got underway in fine fashion on March 31 with the largest crowd ever to see a regular season game at PNC Park -- 39,833 -- on hand to witness. That day, Neil Walker led off the 10th inning with a home run off Chicago's Carlos Villanueva that lifted the Pirates to a 1-0 victory. It was the team's first walk-off win on Opening Day since 1965.

Walker, the Pittsburgh-area native who is now in his fifth season as the Pirates' second baseman, became the hero that afternoon with his "no-doubt" home run that landed well into the right-field bleachers and touched off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands.

"I got a ton of texts and voice mails after the game -- something in the 40s or 50s," Walker said. "I spent most of the night getting back to people. My wife wasn't too happy about that, but I didn't mind. It was just an amazing day."

"Fun game. Fun day. And I can't imagine a way it could have turned out any better," Hurdle added.

Another highlight of the initial homestand of 2014 was a stunning 12-2 victory over St. Louis behind Gerrit Cole on April 4. The Pirates' 16-hit attack that night was led by Pedro Alvarez, who hit a pair of home runs off Shelby Miller, scored three runs and drove in three others. A newcomer to the Bucs -- first baseman Travis Ishikawa -- also homered in that contest.

"On a night like this when we play so well as a team, it's a pretty good feeling," said Cole, who won 10 games in a little over half a season as a rookie a year ago.

Alvarez tied for the league lead in home runs in 2013, when he smacked a total of 36, so it's no surprise when he plays a significant role on offense. But during the first homestand of 2014, the Pirates got a somewhat unexpected boost from back-up catcher Tony Sanchez, who contributed two game-winning hits. The first was an RBI single in the bottom of the 16th inning that gave Pittsburgh a 4-3 victory over the Cubs on April 2 in a marathon contest that lasted five hours, 55 minutes. The other was an RBI double in the seventh inning off one of the NL's best pitchers -- Adam Wainwright -- that led to a 2-1 triumph in the series finale with the Cardinals on April 6.

Sanchez was expected to begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, but wound up on the Opening Day roster after newly acquired catcher Chris Stewart sustained a knee injury during Spring Training. Hurdle showed his appreciation for the clutch hits by Sanchez when he said:

"I think what you see is a guy that's maturing. He knows his at-bats aren't going to be consistent unless something happens to Russell [Martin]. He's going to get spot starts here and there. But he's done a very good job managing the at bats he's had this year -- very good."

The Pirates are scheduled to play their first 26 games against NL Central foes, and that stretch will continue when the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds visit PNC Park for four games each on April 17-20 and April 21-24, respectively. In 2013, Pittsburgh compiled a 45-31 record inside the NL Central and posted a winning record against each of the four other teams in the division.

So that's another trend the Pirates would like to continue, in addition to winning regularly at home.

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.