Conforto HR in 9th prevents Bucs’ sweep

Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco (25) scores past New York Mets starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, right, and catcher Tomas Nido on an infield hit by Kevin Newman and a fielding error during the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, July 18, 2021. Three runs scored on the fielding error by New York Mets starting pitcher Taijuan Walker. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH — Michael Conforto hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning to complete a huge comeback and the New York Mets overcame an embarrassing gaffe by All-Star pitcher Taijuan Walker to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-6 Sunday.

Trailing 6-0 in the first inning, the Mets rallied to salvage a rugged weekend at PNC Park. The NL East leaders lost stars Jacob deGrom and Francisco Lindor to injuries, then dropped Saturday night’s game when closer Edwin Diaz gave up a two-out grand slam in the ninth that capped Pittsburgh’s six-run comeback.

Conforto connected off closer Richard Rodriguez (4-2), who blew his third save in 16 opportunities. Dominic Smith led off the ninth with a single and Conforto followed with his fourth homer.

The Mets lost four of seven to Pittsburgh in a pair of series surrounding the All-Star break.

Walker, who pitched in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, hurt himself with a huge misplay in the first inning that led to an argument and the ejection of Mets manager Luis Rojas.

Bryan Reynolds hit an RBI single and John Nogowski doubled for a quick 3-0 lead, and two walks loaded the bases with one out.

Kevin Newman hit a dribbler down the third base line and the ball started out in foul territory, but then began spinning back toward the line.

Walker swooped in and swatted at the ball, trying to make contact while it was still in foul ground. But TV replays showed the ball was touching the chalk when Walker hit it, and plate umpire Jeremy Riggs correctly called it a fair ball.

Walker turned to argue the call as the ball rolled toward the Pirates dugout, and no Mets reacted to retrieve it. The three Pittsburgh runners took off and kept running, and all came around to score.

Walker said he tried to swat the ball into the dugout.

“Obviously, I thought it was foul,” Walker said. “It was so close. … I thought I flipped it in the dugout. I didn’t even realize it was still in play. It was just one of those plays that just happen. Crazy play.”

Walker was charged with an error on the play, while Newman was credited with a single and one RBI.

Rojas immediately ran out to argue the call and was ejected. He said he wanted the umpires to conference to make sure the correct call was made, even though the play was not reviewable.

“I didn’t wake up this morning to get thrown out in the bottom of the first inning,” he said.

Walker said Rojas’ passionate defense helped the team get back into the game after a lackluster start.

“He was fired up for, sure, and I think that got the whole team fired up, to have our backs,” Walker said.

After walking pitcher JT Brubaker, Walker was pulled from the game. He allowed six runs on four hit and four walks while recording just one out.

The Mets began to rally with Smith’s RBI single in the third. In the fourth, pinch-hitter Travis Blankenhorn hit his first major league homer, a three-run shot to the riverwalk beyond right-center field to make it 6-4.

Jeff McNeil scored on right fielder Gregory Polanco’s throwing error in the sixth to bring the Mets to within a run.

Jeurys Familia (5-1) pitched two innings. Trevor May worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth for his second save.

Saturday’s game

Jacob Stallings hit a fly ball down the left field line and stood in the batter’s box. He was watching and hoping.

“I knew it had a chance because I got it in the air, but I didn’t know if I had enough of it,” the Pirates’ catcher said. “I didn’t run because I figured he was either going to catch it or it was going to be a homer, so I just decided to stand there and watch.”

Stallings liked what he saw.

The ball sailed over the wall for a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning off closer Edwin Diaz that rallied the Pirates to a 9-7 victory over the stunned Mets on Saturday night.

“I couldn’t believe it when it cleared the fence,” Diaz said. “I thought it was a fly ball.”

Trailing 6-0, the Pirates scored all their runs in the final two innings — five in the eighth and four in the ninth.

Stallings got his sixth career game-ending RBI. It was the third walk-off slam at PNC Park, which opened in 2001. The others were by Brian Giles in ’01 and Rob Mackowiak in 2004.

“He was aggressive. He was ready to hit against a guy throwing 100 (mph),” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “I knew when he hit it he got enough of it, I just wasn’t sure if it was going to stay fair. That’s a heck of a comeback.”

Conforto coming around

Conforto’s home run gave him three extra-base hits in three games since the All-Star break. He had just two in 19 games after returning from a hamstring injury in late June, while his slugging percentage fell to .277. Conforto slugged .515 with nine home runs and 12 doubles in 2020.

“He’s one of the guys that we’re waiting to catch fire, because he can help our offense,” Rojas said.

Roster moves

The Pirates reinstated right-handed relief pitcher Duane Underwood Jr. from the injured list and optioned right-handed reliever Nick Mears to Triple-A Indianapolis. Underwood had been out since July 8 with right side discomfort. Mears has not appeared in the majors this season.

The Mets placed deGrom on the 10-day injured list with right forearm tightness. The ace had been scheduled to start on Sunday, but was scratched. An MRI revealed no structural damage.


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