Clint Hurdle was plainly the star of the last few innings of the Pirates' 3-2 loss to the Mets tonight, and in the end, the Pirates lost the game on one of Hurdle's rare good tactical moves.
Jeff Locke pitched six effective innings (three strikeouts, three walks, but only one run) and the Pirates were in a 1-1 tie after six.
But let's just skip ahead to the seventh. Jose Tabata pinch-hit for Locke and hit a single. Then Starling Marte, who has the most extra-base hits on the team this year, came up and ... sacrificed? In the seventh? Er, okay. Then the Mets brought in lefty Scott Rice, so Gaby Sanchez pinch-hit for Travis Snider. He flied out. Rice then intentionally walked Andrew McCutchen and struck out the lefty-intolerant Garrett Jones. Essentially, once the lefty entered, it was Sanchez or nothing.
In the bottom of the inning, Hurdle brought Tony Watson in to face three righties in a row, because ... well, I don't know why. (Let's please retire the "Tony Watson pitches well against righties" excuse. Watson now has a career .722 OPS allowed against righties, and .600 against lefties.) Why Watson was brought in there is beyond me. Anyway, Andrew Brown singled, and then Ike Davis (who actually is left-handed) doubled him home to give the Mets the lead.
Eighth inning! Pedro Alvarez homered to right center to tie the game. In the bottom of the inning, Hurdle turned to ... Mark Melancon? Don't get me wrong -- I love that decision. But it was less than a week ago that Hurdle said, categorically, that Melancon wouldn't pitch unless the Pirates were ahead in the eighth. Anyway, Melancon did his job, and we headed to the ninth.
At that point, Tabata led off again and singled again. You might think that, since Marte bunted in precisely the same situation two innings before, Hurdle would tell him to do it again, especially since playing for one run in a tie game, while rarely a good strategy when on the road, would have made more sense in the ninth than in the seventh. Nope! Marte was allowed to hit, and he struck out. After pinch-hitter Jordy Mercer grounded out and Juan Lagares might a nice catch on a well-hit ball by McCutchen, the game headed to the bottom of the ninth.
The Pirates brought in Jason Grilli. Let's give Hurdle some credit -- he never said he wouldn't do this on the road, so there's no inconsistency there, and it's the right decision. Unfortunately, non-2B Brandon Inge couldn't make a tough play on Marlon Byrd's grounder. (18 trillion defense-first infielders, and the Pirates can't find someone to play second. Hm.) Brown bunted Byrd over (a perfectly valid use of the bunt, by the way, with a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, and nothing a blogger would attack a manager for), and Mike Baxter hit a game-winning single up the middle.
It didn't work out -- even the best pitcher will allow a couple ground ball singles every once in a while -- but Hurdle handled Melancon and Grilli the right way. I'm sure he'll have to answer a lot of questions about the Grilli decision, which is unfortunate. One would hope that he'd receive some positive reinforcement for a good decision like that.
The overwhelming impression here, though, is that Hurdle is essentially a monkey with a typewriter. After saying, categorically, that Melancon would not pitch unless the Pirates were ahead in the eighth, why would Hurdle change his mind after less than a week? And if having Marte do a pure sacrifice with one on and no outs in the seventh was the right play (which it wasn't), why wouldn't it also be correct to have Marte sacrifice again in the ninth? The only reason I can think of is that the Pirates had a more bench options in the seventh, but that should be mitigated by the higher value of one run in the ninth. In any case, if there's any real rhyme or reason here, I can't find it.