(Opening image Clint Hurdle; image credit pittsburghmagazine)
Due to a Friday night family commitment, I missed the first 6 innings of the Pirates-Reds series opener that kicked off in Cincinnati last night. But well aware of Pittsburgh’s heart-stomping fades in 2011 and 2012, I desperately wanted to see the black-and-gold earn a confidence-building, symbolic win to kick of Major League Baseball’s second half. I picked up the game in the top of the 7th, with a runner on, and the Pirates down 5-3.
But what I saw- at least from a fan’s perspective- worries me that the Reds aren’t going to remain 3 games behind the Buccos for long. The latter innings of the game were replete with poor approaches at the plate, and incomparable managerial decisions causing the Pirates to look nothing like the team that finished the first half of the season 19 games over .500.
Keep in mind, I respect the hell out of every Major League ballplayer. To reach this pinnacle requires a degree of athleticism, mental toughness (after all, even the best hitters fail nearly 70% of the time) and coordination unseen in most human beings. So these critiques are coming from the purely from the perspective of a dedicated fan that wants this team to succeed in the worst way.
Off the top of my head, here’s a rundown of all the baffling moments at the plate that took place from the 7th inning on…
Top of the 7th, 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd, Pedro Alvarez at the plate
Facing the lefty Manny Parra, my expectations were low for Alvarez, whose lefty/righty split (.657 OPS vs. 882 OPS) is dramatic. Alvarez watches strike 1, takes a ball, and then on the key pitch, watches a fat fat fat 84mph junk offspeed offering hung right in the middle of the plate- which he could’ve dunked in the Ohio River- for strike 2. Then like the ending of a predictable movie with a bad plot line, Alvarez flails weakly at a terrible slider in the dirt for strike 3. Inning over, with 2 runners left in scoring position, in a game where the Pirates were down 2 runs to an NL Central rival.
Top of the 8th, nobody out, Russell Martin at the plate
Violating a gospel tenet of leading off an inning late in a game in which you’re down, Martin- who had a great game at the plate to that point- watches a called strike 3 on another junk 84mph offspeed offering from Manny Parra, plopped right in the middle of the plate.
A batter later, the game got #hurdled, as Manager Clint Hurdle pulled lefty 1B Garrett Jones– whom the announcers told us was a career .370 hitter against Parra- for right-handed platoon-mate Gaby Sanchez. A lifetime .370 hitter: pulled because he violates Hurdle’s set-in-stone lefty/righty “advantage.” I’ll continue to contend that the majority of Pirates’ fans that “love” Clint Hurdle don’t actually watch many Pirates’ games themselves. The veteran manager is constantly trying to insert his presence into games by overmanaging situations that often leave the bench depleted in latter innings.
Adding insult to injury, the Reds immediately countered by calling righty Sam LeCure from the bullpen. So essentially, Hurdle’s precious lefty/righty matchup was effortlessly neutralized by opposing manager Dusty Baker, costing the Pirates by far their best bat off of the bench, which will factor in during the 9th inning.
Top of the 8th, 1 out, runner on 1B, Jordy Mercer at the plate
To Hurdle’s credit, Gaby Sanchez did draw a walk against a shaky LeCure, who was all over the plate. Now facing the righty LeCure himself, 2B Mercer quickly worked the count to 2-0. At this point, discretion and “old school baseball adages” come into play. From Little League through high school, hitters are taught to 100% absolutely “take the 1st strike” in a situation like this. Me personally, I believe Major League Baseball players should be free of this yoke, as the majority are talented enough to put any chunky fastball tossed right down the middle into the stands.
Whether his personal decision- or given to him from the bench- Mercer watches a fat 89mph fastball right. down. the. middle. for strike 1. On the very next pitch, Mercer grounds into a double play. Inning over.
Top of the 9th, nobody out, Clint Barmes at the plate
Groundhog Day from an inning earlier, SS Clint Barmes strikes out looking to begin the most vital inning of the game. In fairness, Reds’ lefty closer Aroldis Chapman is one of the most wicked late-inning arms in baseball, featuring a 102mph heater, complimented by a so-so high-80’s offspeed offering, which is still lethal, due to the 6’4″ Cuban’s velocity on his heater. Still, you can’t hit if the bat doesn’t leave your shoulders. Striking out looking to begin the 9th is absolutely unacceptable in every situation, especially for Barmes, who is actually hitting .333 (.787 OPS) during the month of July.
Top of the 9th, 1 out, Travis Snider SUPPOSED to be at the plate
#hurdled again! Inserted in the top of the 7th, the lefty Snider had a helluva’ 3 innings. Not only did he lead off the 7th with a single, but Snider ended the 7th by GUNNING DOWN Reds’ 1B Joey Votto at the plate from right field, after an error by 1B Jones, keeping the game within reach at 5-3.
So regardless of Snider facing a lefty closer, clearly the left-handed hitter was on top of his game that evening. Didn’t matter. Hurdle pulled Snider in favor of….[drumroll please]…. .125-hitting SS Josh Harrison. In fairness to Harrison, the 5’8″ INF has had a quality AAA campaign this year, but is hitting only .125/.176/.125 (-12 OPS+) in 18 MLB at bats this year. Is this really a guy you insert to face a closer that throws 102mph?!?
Predictably to everyone except Clint Hurdle himself, Chapman dispatches Harrison quickly, the righty fanning at strike 3 for the second out of the game.
Top of the 9th, 2 outs, Starling Marte at the plate
Just to break up the article with something positive, Marte’s approach against the flamethrowing Chapman was fantastic, and a model for his teammates. The slender leadoff man eventually worked the count to 3-2, before lining a single to the opposite field (instead of trying to pull a fast outside pitch like the majority of the team), which brought the tying run to the plate, and kept the game alive. Excellent at bat!
Top of the 9th, 2 outs, runner on 1B, Mike McKenry at the plate
Here is where manager Hurdle’s unnecessary chess match from an inning earlier catches up with the Pirates. Having burned the use of 1B Gaby Sanchez in a lefty-righty matchup which was quickly taken away from him, with pitcher Bryan Morris due up at the plate, Hurdle turned to backup catcher Mike McKenry to face Chapman. Despite a promising 2012 season, McKenry is currently posting a .180/.234/.310 slashline, good for a 53 OPS+.
(By the way, Gaby Sanchez has a .961 OPS against lefties this season, and has made a career out of being a lefty-killer. That’s how bad this decision was.)
Hurdle’s only other option was the .183/.206/.240-hitting Brandon Inge, but again, the manager put himself in this position by burning a far better option an inning earlier, and unlike middle reliever Manny Parra, the Reds weren’t going to pull Aroldis Chapman to avoid a lefty-righty matchup!
After valiantly fouling off a pitch, McKenry strikes out. Game over.
A vital weakness of the Pirates was also manifest during these final innings. With Hurdle’s signature overmanaging of situations, the majority of the Buccos’ bench is called upon in a game like this. But GM Neal Huntington has taken so long to address it that on a given night, 80% of the bench is comprised of:
Travis Snider (L)– .229/.300/.335- .635 OPS
Brandon Inge– .183/.206/.240- .446 OPS (how is he still on the team?)
Josh Harrison– .125/.176/.125- .301 OPS
Mike McKenry– .180/.234/.310- .544 OPS
Hurdle’s infamous double switches should outlawed, at least until Inge is released, AAA Tony Sanchez is promoted to replace McKenry, and a hopeful trade for a 1B/RF strengthens the bench by placing Jose Tabata or Garrett Jones on it.
All in all, a supremely frustrating start to MLB’s second half, which exposed the Pirates’ lack of plate discipline and situational hitting, Clint Hurdle’s overmanaging fetish, and currently the weakest bench in all of baseball. It IS only one game of 68 remaining, but for fans to not draw comparisons to the disastrous fades of the 2011 and 2012 squads, the Pirates need to get their ship in order post haste. Thanks for reading.
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