There were a lot of ways that the Pirates could've lost this Sunday afternoon game against the Mets. They had a chance to really deliver a knockout punch to Matt Harvey in the second when Clint Barmes lead off the inning with his second homer (his first homer was against Stephen Strasburg, go figure) and then they loaded the bases up with just one out. All they got from that was one more run at a 2-1 lead that looked awfully shaky when Jeanmar Gomez had to leave the game after five innings due to tightness in his leg after being hit by a groundball in the first inning.
Justin Wilson's wildness on the mound lead the Mets to tie the game up in the seventh, but then the Pirates got the run back in the eighth with a Pedro Alvarez RBI single (Alvarez also had a double off of Harvey and has now surpassed the Mendoza line!). That one run lead felt significantly different with Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli looming, but for the first time all year Melancon got himself into a bit of trouble with the game on the line. He served up a double to Daniel Murphy, who advanced to third on a passed ball by Mike McKenry (who had an awful game behind the plate) with one out. After the Pirates walked David Wright semi-intentionally, Melancon struck out Ike Davis with a nasty curveball to get the second out. Lucas Duda then smoked a ground ball down the first base line that popped up straight off of the bag. Somehow, though, it turned just enough towards second base that Brandon Inge was there waiting for it and he grabbed the ball and threw it to Melancon covering first for the third out. There's nothing wrong with being lucky. The ninth inning with Jason Grilli went much more smoothly; Grilli retired the side with two strikeouts on eight pitches.
The win puts the Pirates at 21-16, which means that they're back to the point they were after taking the first game from the Nationals last Friday. These three straight wins against the Mets wipe out that ugly little 1-4 skid that they went on after that game. 21-16 also keeps them within 2 1/2 games of the Cardinals (once they finish losing to the Rockies this afternoon) and a half game behind the Reds. Last year the Pirates used a pretty weak schedule in May and June to overcome a bad start and launch them into contention. This year they had a good start against a tough schedule, so it's quite nice to see them rack up some wins against a lesser team. The ice cold Brewers come into PNC Park next, followed by a visit from our old friends from Houston. It's time for the Bucs to heat up and rack up some wins. This series was a very good start.
It's nice that the Pirates have cruised to two easy wins in the middle of this series against the Mets, because their backs are certainly up against the wall today. Matt Harvey is on the mound for the Mets against Jeanmar Gomez. Harvey has been incredible this season, with a 1.28 ERA, 58 strikeouts, and just 12 walks in 49 1/3 innings spread over seven starts. In his last outing, he faced 28 hitters in nine complete innings, striking out 12 and only allowing one hit. The Mets have won six of his seven starts. On the other hand, Gomez made a really nice start his last time out against the Mariners and the Mets offense is struggling right now, scoring four runs or fewer in their last six games. The best the Pirates can probably hope for is that Gomez keeps the Pirates close and that they somehow rack up a big pitch count against Harvey (you know, by taking five or six pitches to strike out instead of just three), chasing him after maybe six innings.
First pitch today is at 1:10. When you see the pink bats on the field, remember to call your mom.
The Francisco Liriano Saga has been a long and strange one without Liriano ever even throwing a pitch for the Pirates. Today, he'll finally make his first start for the Bucs. Even if Liriano hadn't missed the season's first six weeks recovering from a broken humerus in his right (non-throwing) arm suffered under weird circumstances over Christmas, I'd tell you that I didn't know what to expect from Liriano. Liriano is an undoubtedly talented guy, but arm problems and control problems have left him with a pretty spotted career. Certainly, he's as talented as any pitcher on the Pirate staff right now and he's capable of going out and taking over a game by sheer force of talent. Whether he falls closer to Erik Bedard or AJ Burnett on the scale of "talented but frustrating Pirate pitchers" scale, well, we'll see. His rehab stint went well and I think that the coaching staff can work with his skillset, but still, this is a pretty big unknown and a pretty important variable for the 2013 Pirates. Hold your breath, cross your fingers, etc.
Tony Sanchez is also in New York in case Russell Martin has to go on the disabled list with his stiff neck. He's off to a good start in Triple-A this year (.269/.380/.449 in 25 games) and I still feel like he can be a serviceable big league catcher, despite all of his minor league struggles. It's not certain that he'll be activated this weekend, but at least this indicates that the Pirates think that he's ready to play at the big league level, if necessary.
In any case, Liriano takes the mound today against Jon Niese and the Pirates need a win with Matt Harvey looming in the series finale on Sunday. Niese is not off to a particularly great start this year, with a 4.66 ERA and nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (20) in his 36 2/3 innings. With Liriano representing such a big question mark on the mound, it'd be nice to ding Niese for some runs. First pitch today is at 1:10.
Don't look now, but the Pirates have lost four of their last five games if you go back to last Saturday, and they've lost six of nine if you take things all the way back to the beginning of the Brewers series. This is not a very good trend, to state the obvious.
The good news (if you want to call it that) is that the Pirates don't look like a lifeless husk of a team in losing these games. They're not playing a whole lot worse than they were when they were winning a lot of games, they're just doing enough wrong in a lot of places (the field some nights, the plate others, the dugout etc.) to rack some losses up. The only way to break out of this is mindlessly simple: play better baseball.
Tonight is as good a night as any to start playing better baseball. Wandy Rodriguez is on the mound for the Pirates. Wandy didn't get a win in his last start on Sunday, but he pitched much better than he had in his two starts preceding that one. Let's hope that's the start of a good trend. Shaun Marcum, someone that seemed like a decent fit for the Pirates while the whole Francisco Liriano debacle was happening, is going for the Mets. He dealt with shoulder problems in camp and neck problems after that and in the games he has pitched he's been pretty bad. This is the sort of game that you'd like to see the Pirates win, based on pitching matchup alone.
I haven't done a good job of posting/talking about relevant news stories this week, so let's catch up here.
Travis Sawchik from the Trib reported on Wednesday that James McDonald's shoulder has some inflammation but no structural damage. That's fairly good news. Hopefully his shoulder can recover with some time on the shelf and when he starts throwing again, he'll be able to nail down some more consistent mechanics with his arm closer to 100%. I don't see a timetable for his return anywhere, so it's hard to know what to make of this kind of news. We'll just have to wait and see how the Pirates handle his return/rehab.
Jim Callis posted his first mock draft at Baseball America yesterday. He's got the Pirates taking UNC third baseman Colin Moran at #9 and Indiana State's LHP Sean Manea at #14. I've seen the Pirates linked to Moran all over the place, so guessing they like him at #9 seems like a safe bet at this point. Manea's a wild card since he's a Boras client that dominated last summer in the Cape Cod League but has dealt with some injuries and resulting questions since then. For most of Huntington's first years on the job it was pretty easy to predict who the Pirates would be taking since they were picking high and the teams that picked ahead of them did what they were expected to do. I feel like they're tougher to read when they're lower in the draft because they're generally not afraid of picking hard signs that drop (see: Mark Appel).
In the early moments of Little Big League, young Billy Heywood is considering naming himself manager of the Twins and he gets grilled by the team's pitching coach about what to do in various baseball situations. At one point, the pitching coach asks Billy what to do late in a close game with a runner on first base for a hitter in the middle of the lineup. He thinks that the right answer is to bunt the runner over, but Billy points out that bunting the runner over will allow the other team to use intentional walks and pitching changes to take the bats out of the rest of the middle of his lineup, rendering the runner on second base moot. Billy Heywood is a fictional 12-year old in a movie from 1994.
Tonight in the seventh inning, Jose Tabata lead off with a pinch-hit single. Starling Marte bunted Tabata over to second. Terry Collins brought in a lefty to face Travis Snider, so Snider got swapped out for Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez flew out, and Andrew McCutchen was intentionally walked. That left Garrett Jones to face the lefty, and he struck out to end the inning. That bunt after the leadoff single effectively took the bat away from the first four hitters in his lineup. It had the added effect of bringing Jordy Mercer to the plate in the ninth inning with the go-ahead run on base instead of Travis Snider. It happened so predictably that it was beyond maddening.
That was followed with Not A LOOGY For Some Reason Tony Watson brought on to pitch the seventh inning of a 1-1 game with the three rigthies due up. He gave up a single to Andrew Brown, who scored on pinch hitter Ike Davis's double.
I'm mentioning this because I'm sure that the only managerial decision that anyone will be talking about after this game is Hurdle using Melancon and Grilli in the eighth and ninth innings of a tie game ont he road and that not paying off after Grilli gave up an "infield single" on a groundball to Brandon Inge -- who was somehow still at second base in the ninth inning of a tie game -- that eventually resulted in the Mets scoring the winning run. Hurdle was adamant earlier this year about not using Melancon or Grilli in tie games, so he'll likely use this game as more evidence to support that method. Frankly, I think that using Grilli at that spot in the ninth inning was debateable, but only because Melancon cruised through the eighth on 12 pitches and he hardly ever throws any pitches and it was the bottom of the Mets' order that was up in the ninth. Really, though, the point is that the game was full of questionable managing and using Grilli and Melancon accounted for exactly none of it.
I feel like whenever I point out bad managing in a loss, I also have to point out that the Pirate players played badly. The Pirates loaded the bases in the sixth inning with no outs, and managed a sac fly, a pop-out, and a groundout. There was the aforementioned bad defense by Inge in the ninth. There was also a pretty incredible play by Mets' centerfielder Juan Lagares on what looked like a sure-fire RBI double that was just CRUSHED off of Andrew McCutchen's bat in the top of the ninth. So yes: the Pirates had plenty of chances to win the game regardless of any decisions that were or were not made by the manager. And yes, I'm still angry about the seventh inning and I'm still mad that all anyone is going to talk about is how Grilli should be used.
It's no secret that the just-concluded homestand against the Nats and Mariners was pretty disappointing. The Pirates went 2-3 over the five games, though they could've pretty easily gone 4-1. Of course, none of that matters now; the Pirates now have 11 games in the next 11 days and so the focus turns to winning as many of them as possible. This stretch kicks off with four road games in New York against the Mets. The Mets are, in almost every aspect, a pretty middle-of-the-road NL team this year. They're currently eighth in both runs allowed and runs scored, though their record is a little bit under .500 (13-17). One would think that the Pirates should be able to at least split this series and maybe take three of four, though it's worth noting that Matt Harvey will start on Sunday and so for now, the Pirates are probably best served by taking things one game at a time.
Jeff Locke starts tonight, coming off of a pretty lackluster start against the Nationals. I'm having a hard time pegging his performance this year. In his first two years in the big leagues, he got hit pretty hard all over the ballpark despite pretty sparkling strikeout/walk numbers. This year he's not missing as many bats (his K% is down from 23% last year to 13.4% this year) and he's occasionally struggling with control (BB% up from 7.4% to 11.3%). He's not getting an exceptional amount of groundballs or anything, either. Really, a bunch of his success is tied up in the .220 BABIP against him, which is obviously way too low. Still, he's capable of striking out more hitters than he has and his command shouldn't be as shaky as it's been, so one would think that even if his BABIP starts to regress back upwards he should be able to compensate for it by simply giving out fewer free passes and not allowing as many balls to be put in play. Like I said; I'm having trouble figuring him out.
His mound opponent tonight is Dillon Gee. Gee has been bad this year with 19 strikeouts, 11 walks, and five homers allowed to match his 6.16 ERA in six starts and 30 2/3 innings. If Locke has another bad night, at least the Pirates should be able to compensate against Gee.