I suppose the best place to start, before getting into any details of this game, is to say that a week in which your favorite team loses three long extra inning games is a week that probably wasn't as bad for them as their record indicates. The Pirates lost two series this week to NL playoff contenders, and if the extra inning coin flipped their way three times instead of against them three times, we'd all feel a lot differently about everything right now. Obviously that's not how things played out, it's just that I'd hesitate to draw a lot of conclusions from three losses like this in a week other than that the Pirates play a lot of close and extra inning games, which is something that we already knew.
Of course, the details of these three extra inning losses are somewhat similar and hugely frustrating in their own way. The Pirates got early leads in each game and failed to hold any of them. The games then ended on long scoreless stretches from the offense and a bullpen that eventually had to buckle. Today, the Pirates had a 2-0 lead in the third inning that disappeared when Charlie Morton, who was otherwise excellent, ran into a ton of trouble in the sixth. Things somehow only got more frustrating from there.
I don't know how else to say this: the bottom of the eighth inning was so dumb, that it actually offended me. I swear to you right here and right now that I'm going to start turning baseball games off when Clint Hurdle bunts with a position player in front of Andrew McCutchen late in close game. This is the sort idiotic, penny-ante bullshit that no one that's thought critically about baseball since 2003 thinks is a good idea, and Hurdle's done it multiple times in the last week. Let me spell this out: the Pirates have one reliable offensive threat on this team, and that's Andrew McCutchen. When Starling Marte, who is maybe the fastest person in the National League right now, gets on base to start an inning, bunting him over to second will only ever result in an intentional walk to McCutchen. That means that either Pedro Alvarez will bat against a lefty, or Russell Martin will bat against a righty. Today, Hurdle's idiotic bunting coupled with Marte's insanely brainless decision to steal third base (I can only assume that Marte stole on his own because there's no fathomable reason that he needed to be on third base in that situation), though the fact that I'm to hesitating to absolve Hurdle of blame can speak for itself. It's this simple: the Pirates got a leadoff single in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tie game this afternoon, and through completey avoidable decisions, the only person allowed to swing his bat that inning was Russell Martin. That's insane and unacceptable.
The Pirates only threatened one more time. Neil Walker lead off with a single in the 12th, then Kris Johnson was forced to bat because Hurdle emptied the bench in the bottom of the ninth inning (the final result of which was Tony Sanchez just staring at three perfectly good-looking Heath Bell fastballs with no inclination to swing, which, huh?). Johnson bunted Walker over, then Walker moved to third on a Starling Marte groundout. The Diamondbacks decided that they'd rather face Russell Martin than Jordy Mercer (who had a double and a single during the at-bats that he was allowed by his manager to fend for himself during the game) or McCutchen, so Mercer was intentionally unintentionally walked, McCutchen was intentionally walked, and then Martin came up. He took ball one for the ninth consecutive ball that Josh Collmenter threw, then swung at a 1-0 pitch and weakly popped it up to end the inning.
The whole thing finally ended in the 16th inning. Kris Johnson was added to the roster before the game to give the weary bullpen some help, and he ended up out on the mound for six innings. He was pretty brilliant in his first five, but he finally cracked when a two-out flare off of Adam Eaton's bat just barely made its way under Andrew McCutchen's glove (I'd stop just short of saying that McCutchen should have made the play, but he certainly could have made it). The Pirates tried to rally in the bottom of the 16th, but the game ended with two runners on and Johnson at the plate. The Pirates don't really have any good hitting pitchers, but Johnson only has three hits over his extensive minor league career, while Gerrit Cole has five with the Pirates in the two and a half months he's been on the club. Why Clint Hurdle didn't even try to wrap the lineup around to get Starling Marte back up in the 16th is pretty far beyond me.
I don't know what else to say. As I said in the opening paragraph, I don't think that the Pirates have played as badly over the last nine games as their 2-7 record indicates. They lost three long extra inning games with bad missed catches and runners stranded on base and blown leads, plus they had another game turn on a flukey balk call a week ago (Actually, now that I'm mentioning LAST Sunday's phantom balk on Jeff Locke, I do want to say that I don't understand how Wade Miley wasn't called for a balk when he picked Tabata off of first base in the bottom of the seventh inning. Miley clearly brought his right leg back past the rubber on his kick, then strode forward towards the plate and at the last second kind of just barely stepped in the slight direction of first. It honestly looked to me like he started off wanting to deliver a pitch and changed his mind when he saw Tabata break towards second out of the corner of his eye. I understand that lefties very rarely get called for balks when making pickoff throws to first, but this looked really blatant to me even at full speed. Clint Barmes of course immediately followed the pickoff with a single, so the play changed the tenor of the inning pretty dramatically.). What has me concerned at this point is that they've lost a bunch of games without playing all that terribly and in doing so, they've run the bullpen ragged. Now they're getting a late departure from Pittsburgh for a west coast swing and they don't have an off-day until next Monday. The Pirates are a much better team than the Padres and Giants are right now and I don't think they're playing quite as badly as a lot of Pirate fans think, but it still seems to me that quite a bit of danger exists for them on this road trip.
I think you're overlooking (willingly?) a real problem here, which is that the Pirates' lineup is weak and they are really struggling to score runs. They've lost a few blowouts, but mostly the pitching has been good and they've been losing games because they can't score. There's no easy solution to this; they just don't have anybody in the lineup who's much better than an average hitter for his position except Andrew McCutchen (and Alvarez, I guess, but he's extremely flawed, by which I mean he should be a strict platoon hitter but he mashes righties SO well that you can't sit him against every lefty without angering him and the fans.) And a third of the lineup is near-automatic outs (pitcher, RF du jour, Barmes/Mercer, though Mercer's been playing well enough to make Barmes' presence on the roster inexplicable).
There's really only one outcome to this season that I dread and fear: the Pirates collapsing sufficiently to miss the playoffs, but not sufficiently to finish under .500, causing the front office to regard the season as a success and fail to fire Hurdle. I'd rather them collapse all the way to 79-83 and get Hurdle fired than that.
Unfortunately that exact outcome--84-78, no playoffs, Hurdle back in 2014--is starting to look uncomfortably plausible. Arizona is a better team than Pittsburgh. 7.5 games out of 40 better, well, we'll see. But it would take a really epic collapse to fail to win 81 games, to the point it's almost inconceivable (it would require an 8-32 finish).
But Hurdle really, really needs to go. He's awful. I think the 2014 Pirates have a chance to be really good, and Hurdle has a chance to really hold them back.
The decision to send Lambo down and keep an extra pitcher ( I am looking at Brian Morris ) really paid off,didn't it ?
You know who's worried about a collapse? Clint Hurdle. For a few months there he was letting the hitters hit and the pitchers pitch; the wins stacked up and the Hurdled hashtag basically disappeared. Then one bad week in the heartland, it looks like he got spooked, and now he's trying to manufacture wins again. Whatever it was in the late spring that turned him into a completely different (and much better) manager, he needs a reminder right now.
@Eephus Exactly--it's tough for a ballclub not to panic when the manager seems to be in clear panic mode.