When Matt Joyce left the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after last season, his stock had not been lower since he made his major league debut. The 2011 All-Star finished last season, his only season with the Halos, with a .174 batting average and spent 11 games slumming it in Triple-A with the Salt Lake Bees.
So when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Joyce to a modest one-year, $1 million contract this offseason to be a left-handed bench bat, the former Angels outfielder saw it as an opportunity to prove that his lousy 2015 campaign was a fluke.
Joyce made a personal impression on Saturday evening at PNC Park when he pounded a three-run, pinch-hit home run off of side-arming lefty Greg Mahle in the bottom of the seventh inning that gave the Pirates a five-run lead. Pittsburgh would need every one of those runs as they held on to be the Angels 8-7.
“I really enjoyed my time over there, besides the ‘failing’ part of it,” Joyce said. “Those runs really ended up being huge for us at the end of the game. That made it a little more special.”
The homer was Joyce’s sixth of the season, one more than he had all of last year, and his fourth pinch-hit home run of the year. The lefty is already tied with Mark Johnson (1996) for second in Pirates history for pinch-hit home runs in a season. Craig Wilson holds the club record with seven homers in 2001.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle compared Joyce’s streak of successful pinch hits to Rusty Staub, who broke records in the 1983 season for most consecutive pinch hits and most RBIs as a pinch hitter.
“It’s as good of a streak as I’ve been around,” Hurdle said. “I’ve been fortunate to see several guys [succeed at pinch hitting] and this is as good of a run as any of them have ever had.”
While it’s a bit odd for a player to excel at pinch hitting, Joyce’s success is not by accident. The lefty slugger took the job in Pittsburgh knowing that the Pirates had a crowded outfield. In response, Joyce doubled down on preparation.
Joyce said that he watches more video, tries to learn about pitchers, and hits off of the machine during the game to try to get himself up to game speed for when his number is called.
“There’s no secret formula,” Joyce said. “I’m just putting in the hard work, the time, and the dedication. It’s paying off.”
Joyce’s pinch-hit heroics could not have come at a better time for the Pirates. Pittsburgh’s five-run seventh inning broke open a close game, but the Angels closed the gap quickly as relievers Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz combined to surrender four runs in the top of the eighth inning.
Feliz stranded the tying run at second base and closer Mark Melancon came in to shut the door in the ninth inning. Melancon recorded his 17th save of the season. Dating back to 2014, Melancon has saved 101 games for the Pirates and has blown just seven save opportunities.
“That’s what big-time closers do,” Hurdle said. “A little madness comes into the game and your closer comes in one, two, three.”
Coming off of his first career complete game shutout, starter Jeff Locke gave the Pirates seven solid innings on Saturday evening. The lefty gave up three runs, two on solo homers by Kole Calhoun and Shane Robinson, on seven hits. Locke struck out two and, for the first time in his career, did not allow a walk for the second consecutive game.
“We’re throwing more strikes,” Locke said. “We’re still falling behind guys. We’re not perfect. But now it’s a 1-2 pitch and not a 2-1 pitch.”
Joyce was not the only Pirate who got to practice his home run trot today. In the second inning, Jung Ho Kang belted a two-run homer into the bullpen beyond the center field wall. Kang is now slugging .681 in 77 at-bats this season and has hit more home runs (8) than he has singles (6).
Gregory Polanco saw an off-speed pitch to lead off the seventh inning and sent the ball screaming over the seats atop the Clemente Wall in right field. The 451-foot bomb may have been ticketed for the Allegheny River if it didn’t bank off one of the pillars standing beyond the wall. The homer was Polanco’s ninth of the season.
Starling Marte went 3-for-4 with a triple, a double, a walk, and two runs scored. The Pirates left fielder’s lone out with a center-field drive that backed Mike Trout up to the warning track, but he ended up falling a home run shy of the cycle.
The Pirates finish their three-game series against the American League’s Angels on Sunday afternoon at 1:35 when Pirates righty Gerrit Cole (5-4, 2.72 ERA) takes on Angels lefty Hector Santiago (3-3, 4.96 ERA).