PITTSBURGH -- Fellow passengers on a commuter flight to Pittsburgh late Friday night may have been a bit freaked out. Jared Hughes, the soft-spoken Pirates reliever with the hard edge on the mound, was watching the Bucs-Astros game and getting his game-face on.
The connecting flight had been delayed, but the 4-4 game at PNC Park appeared to be heading into extra innings.
"I had to keep my mind in the game during the flight, in case we were in extras when I got there and had to pitch," Hughes said Saturday afternoon.
The game, won by the Pirates in the ninth inning on a two-out error by Houston right fielder Jimmy Paredes, was long over by the time Hughes reached the park post-midnight.
If the delay was tough on Hughes -- recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis as Jose Contreras went on the bereavement list -- it was much tougher on Pirates manager Clint Hurdle who, unbeknownst at the time, had a thin bullpen.
"[Jason] Grilli wasn't available, and I didn't want to use [Bryan] Morris," Hurdle said. "We were really hoping Hughes would get here during the game."
Hughes and his improved delivery were at the ready in the Bucs' bullpen Saturday night.
"I definitely made a few mechanical adjustments," said Hughes, who threw all blanks in six outings with Indianapolis after posting a 4.61 ERA in 13 appearances with the Pirates. "I got myself back to where I was when I was really consistent with the sinker and the slider."
"He showed some improvement, although I do think there is more room for improvement," Hurdle said. "But he is better than he was when he got [to Indianapolis]."
Hurdle ejected after close play at the plate
PITTSBURGH -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was ejected from Saturday night's 4-2 loss against the Astros after Houston took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 11th inning.
Home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor called Jason Castro safe at home when Matt Dominguez dribbled a ball to second base. Pirates catcher Russell Martin appeared to have the plate blocked with his left leg after fielding a throw from Neil Walker, but Castro got his foot down just before Martin applied the tag.
Bucknor ejected Hurdle after about a minute-long argument, prompting cheers from the crowd.
After the game, Hurdle said the call was right.
"I thought we had a play and weren't able to get an out," Hurdle said. "And then I went inside [the clubhouse to check on a replay] and the ump made the right call. He made a good call. He got a good look at it and he was right."
Pirates hold ceremony for Honorary Bat Girl
PITTSBURGH -- When Maria Heddleston found out she was going to be honored by the Pirates for her perseverance through breast cancer, her 7-year-old son John didn't give his mother any congratulations.
"He said, 'Do I get to meet Andrew McCutchen?" Heddleston recalled, laughing.
The Pirates held a pregame ceremony on Saturday for Heddleston, their winner of MLB's Honorary Bat Girl Contest. The league honors one winner to represent each of its teams, and "recognizes baseball fans who have been affected by breast cancer and demonstrate a commitment to eradicating the disease." The winners are usually honored on Mother's Day, but since the Pirates were in New York, they found a date that worked for both parties.
John threw out the first pitch in place of his mother, because she said it would mean more to him. He even skipped his Little League game to attend Saturday's contest against the Astros.
"I can't even put all this into words," Heddleston said from just outside the Pirates' dugout before first pitch Saturday.
Heddleston, a Munhall, Pa., resident, has been battling Stage 4 breast cancer since 2011, but said she wouldn't let it change her life. She continues to teach at Park Elementary School in the Steel Valley School District while undergoing chemotherapy treatment once every three weeks.
McCutchen was part of the selection committee that helped determine the winners after fans submitted nominees and the reasons why they should represent their favorite team. Heddleston grew up in the area as a lifelong Pirates fan.
The winners were also based on fan votes, and Heddleston said she had thousands of supporters from all over the country, some she didn't know, helping her cause.
"I have a great network of friends," she said. "That's where I get all my inspiration from."
McCutchen said it was a cause close to his heart because he's had family members affected by cancer.
"Maria is definitely a huge fighter for what she's done and what she's overcome and through what she continues to do," McCutchen said. "It's great that she gets the opportunity to be here, and I'm just honored that I get to represent her."
Persistent Pirates benefit from unexpected mishap
PITTSBURGH -- Given a chance to reflect on Friday night's victory on a walk-off popup, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was pretty sure of two things:
(a) It was the type of game his 2011 and '12 Bucs would not have found a way to win and (b) tape of the finish makes a pretty good instructional video for players and staff in the team's Minor League system.
Not in the sense of a "How Not To Play Baseball" reel. But a "This Stuff Can Happen Anywhere" reel.
"You can take this tape, take it down to West Virginia, and if you're pulling your hair out because they're not playing the game right, not fundamentally executing, show 'em a big league game," Hurdle said. "Let everyone go, 'Wow. It can happen.'"
The Pirates did little to help themselves at the conclusive end of that decisive ninth inning. Singles by Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen set things in motion, but then they were helped by an error by Houston pitcher Edgar Gonzalez before Russell Martin's pop was steamrolled out of second baseman Jake Elmore's glove by right fielder Jimmy Paredes.
The persistence required to be in a situation to profit from the meltdown is what Hurdle thinks may have been lacking each of the last two seasons.
"I'm not sure that's a game we win either of the last two seasons. The way it unfolded," Hurdle said, describing the scene on the bench, "guys looked at each other, going, 'We didn't have that [before].'"
Opposite-field hit may be good sign for McCutchen
PITTSBURGH -- Situational hitting, consistent pitching and good defense breeds success. The Pirates have had all three this season.
On Friday night, Pittsburgh got 4 1/3 shutout innings from its bullpen, a timely two-run homer from Pedro Alvarez to tie the game in the eighth and a good piece of situational hitting in the ninth.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen singled to the opposite field in the game's final inning with Travis Snider on first, allowing him to reach third with ease. It was just his fifth hit to the right half of the outfield at PNC Park this season.
And while it may not have wound up being all that important after the Astros' error with the bases loaded ended the game, it's a step in the right direction for McCutchen, who is hitting .276 after ending 2012 with a .327 mark.
"It's usually a sign of him getting to a good place," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the opposite-field stroke. "That was good to see, there's no doubt."
But McCutchen insists he never changes his approach, and there's no single thing that clicks in his head when he's about to start heating up at the plate. It's just baseball, and the peaks and valleys that come with it.
"You can't focus on the results. All you can do is control your effort," said McCutchen, who has gone through 1-for-28 and 2-for-19 slumps this season. "Once you swing the bat, there's nothing you can do after that. You can't control where the ball goes. That's all I'm trying to do."
First number, last word
10: Wins by Pirates relievers, tied for most in the Majors with the Reds, the D-backs and the Giants.
"The thing we kept saying on the bench [Friday night] was, 'I don't know how we're going to win this one, but this will be a really good one to win.'" -- Hurdle, on the Pirates' comeback from a 4-1 deficit to beat Houston, 5-4, on a dropped popup with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning.
• The Bucs crept within three strikeouts of Cincinnati's league-leading staff total of 350 by averaging over 10 whiffs in the last seven games, heading into Saturday night's action. Of the total of 71 strikeouts in that stretch, relievers had accounted for 34.
• Catchers routinely are rested in day games after night games, but Rusell Martin may remain in the lineup for Sunday's series finale against the Astros. If Hurdle decides to sit him, and thus give him consecutive days off with Monday's break in the schedule, Michael McKenry's week-long work on his throwing mechanics will be put to the test.
McKenry has worked hard and diligently to regain control and confidence in his throws, and it has been going well, but Hurdle noted "it'll take a game for us to find out" how much progress has been made.
• James McDonald (shoulder discomfort) has made enough progress during flat-ground throwing to be scheduled for a bullpen session on Tuesday.
• Infielder John McDonald (lower-back strain) seems certain to go out on a rehab assignment before he would be activated -- partly because Hurdle revealed the veteran is also dealing with "an elbow issue" he hadn't mentioned until being sidelined by the back.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.