(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit post-gazette)
Watching last night’s game unravel the way it did took this writer back 21 years. For the life of me, I can’t remember a worse Pittsburgh Pirates‘ loss since Sid Bream slid home in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.
1. Courtesy of @ESPNStatsInfo: Pirates lost a game after leading by 3 or more runs entering 9th inning for 1st time since 2009. They had won 163 straight. @EliasSports
And not only did they lose what was statistically a nearly un-losable game, but everything else went wrong in the Wild Card standings as well. The Milwaukee Brewers choked after rallying to tie their game against the St. Louis Cardinals at 6-6. One of the best hitters in the NL in Carlos Gomez couldn’t drive in the winning run, and the Cardinals won in 10 innings, stretching their Division lead to what could be an insurmountable 2 games.
2. Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals– still not out of the playoff picture despite how much Pirates’ fans want them to be- hammered the hapless Miami Marlins 8-0. The Nationals are now only
4 (edit: 5) games back of both the Pirates and Reds in the Wild Card race, with 8 to play. If the Nationals win out, the Pirates would have to finish the season 4-4 to beat them. The Nationals are 8-2 over their last 10, and the Pirates? 5-5. As I’ve stated in previous articles, this is going to get too close for comfort, despite the Pirates’ “99%” likelihood of reaching the postseason.
3. Clint Hurdle, ladies and gentlemen. Clint Hurdle. Over the past month in particular, the Pirates’ manager has made some ridiculous substitutions, including pinch-hitting for players that had hit home runs in the same game on multiple occasions. So as a fan, it’s absolutely baffling that Hurdle- ejected in the 8th inning, but clearly still lurking somewhere in the clubhouse- would have both Jordy Mercer (14 errors in only 99 games) and Pedro Alvarez (27 errors) out there in the top of the critical 9th inning. That’s a combined 41 errors on the hot side of the infield!
4. And it would be one thing if the Pirates went into the top of the 9th with only a 1- or 2-run lead. I can see the thinking there in keeping your best bats in the game if there is a rally. But a 3-run lead? Again, reference the statistic given by ESPN in #1 above. If there’s one thing I’ll give SS Clint Barmes and his $5.5MM contract credit for, it’s being an outstanding defender. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have been an automatic defensive substitute for Mercer in every game this September.
5. What made this gaffe even worse is the fact that Hurdle immediately lied about it to the media, a lie that was quickly exposed as falsehood.
Hurdle said Mercer always finishes games he starts. Not so. Been replaced 7 times this season: May 12, Jul 26, 27; Aug 10, 13; Sept 15, 17.
6. The Manager also was quick to throw his own players under the bus to the media, and attempt to cover his own tracks:
“It’s only because Jordy made the error that we’re asking these questions,” Hurdle said.
Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) Hurdle said Liriano made clear he was done after 8 innings, said Liriano told staff, “That’s it.”
7. This leads us to the question of, “Why was a shaky Mark Melancon out there anyway?” Francisco Liriano was cruising through 8 complete innings at only 94 pitches- less than 12 per inning. The Pirates’ coaches couldn’t convince the 16-game winning lefty to trot back out for one more to lock down the victory himself?
And frankly, if Liriano did say that, shame on him for wussing out of such a high-stakes game. He’s supposed to be a veteran, and late September baseball is usually the time when veterans shine. If Liriano wanted no part of finishing such a vital game, then that has to raise concerns about his mental fortitude *if* the Pirates are faced with a future decision of what SP to throw during a 1-game Wild Card.
8. To me, the Pirates’ bullpen is looming as a major liability to this point. Former closer Jason Grilli is clearly not back to his pre-injury velocity or dominance. And even though it took most of the season, the book is clearly out now on Melancon. In back-to-back blown saves against the Reds and San Diego Padres, opposing right-handed hitters have been waiting on his cut fastball, and taking the tailing pitch the opposite way to RF with ease. One fan last night remarked that this was the “same Melancon he was used to seeing as a member of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.” Not good.
9. Some insights that DID go right last night: Hurdle or whomever was managing in his stead correctly positioned Mercer earlier in the 9th inning, to snag what should’ve been an easy single up the middle by powerhitter Jay Bruce– a great call that will be lost due to the disaster that unfolded immediately after. And then in the post-game, broadcaster Kent Tekulve had this apt observation:
Dejan Kovacevic (@Dejan_Kovacevic) Teke speaking truth right now about Dusty vs. Cutch: “Long-standing pattern … first game of every series … way too much information.”
On one hand, I can respect the Pirates for not wanting to retaliate and target the Reds’ best players with beanballs, but the team is clearly now intimidated by the high-velocity assault against Andrew McCutchen, and with no assistance in the form of automatic ejections from MLB umpiring crews, they’re to the point where they might have to follow Adrienne’s advice to Rocky: “Hit him back!”
10. The upcoming Cardinals-Nationals series is lurking as both ugly and significant in the wake of last night’s events. It could easily become a Catch-22: Pirates’ fans may find themselves rooting for the cursed Cardinals to vanquish Washington’s Wild Card pursuit once and for all (since the Pirates are struggling to do this themselves), but in doing so, would also be supporting St. Louis wrapping up the NL Central Division title.
(Bonus point 11) Can someone please advise ROOT Sports broadcaster Tim Neverett on the prevalence of the “jinx” phenomena in the game of baseball? Hearing his standard “and this should do it!” call immediately prior to Mercer airmailing a throw into the 3rd row of the stands is utterly aggravating, given everything else that transpired immediately after. Be a professional, Tim. Don’t assume something happens until it does.
While they may need help from other teams over these last 8 games, it is solely up to the Pirates to ensure that last night’s meltdown isn’t remembered with the same significance as Sid Bream’s slide. Thanks for reading.