This was a fun one.
The pitching matchup didn't live all the way up to its billing, but it was good enough. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg weren't dominating. They didn't amass a bunch of strikeouts and completely shut down the other side.
Instead, both pitchers provided very solid starts, which ended up putting a premium on gaining extra bases when available, chipping away and scoring one run at a time and, most interestingly, forcing both managers make important, decisive, tactical decisions.
Tactics I (Bottom of the 5th, 2-1 Nationals)
With Cole's pitch count up to 98, Starling Marte led off the bottom half of the fifth inning with a single. Clint Barmes was due up next.
At this point in the game it was pretty clear that both managers were working within a low-run environment and should adjust their tactics accordingly.
In low scoring games, the value of a base relative to an out increases, making exchanging a base for an out a better trade-off than it would be otherwise.
Since the the odds of Barmes getting a hit off Strasburg were not significantly higher than the odds of him reaching base via a sacrifice bunt attempt (11.8 percent of bunts end up as hits), this situation made a sacrifice bunt from Barmes a decent option. Or, more aggressively, Marte could have attempted to steal early in the count to set Barmes up to bunt him over to to third.
But Hurdle did not go in this direction. Instead he let Barmes swing away and Marte stayed put.
What happened next was a terrible sequence for the Bucs. Marte attempted to steal late in Barmes' at-bat and was out by 10 feet. (Marte may have thought the count was full on Barmes, and he had drawn a walk, which explains why he didn't slide.)
Barmes then struck out on the next pitch and Cole struck out to end the inning.
The outcome was the worst possible under the circumstances, but that doesn't mean the tactics were necessarily flawed. Indeed, they were consistent with conventional wisdom. However, this was a situation where bunting, for once, ended up on the other the other side of the argument.
We often immediately criticize bunts by pointing out the offensive opportunities missed. In this case, a bunt may have been more likely to create advantageous base/out situation than Barmes swinging away.
Tactics II (Bottom of the 7th)
Trailing 2-1, the Bucs had runners on second and third with one out. Barmes was due up, again.
Hurdle went with a pinch-hitter, choosing Jose Tabata over Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and Jordy Mercer. It was an interesting decision.
In this situation, the Pirates absolutely could not afford a strikeout or a pop out. The Nationals defense was back, so a ground ball would have been acceptable.
My first reaction to Hurdle's decision, based purely on platoon advantage, was, "Why not Snider?"
However, without jumping too deeply into a statistical breakdown, a strong argument could be made for Tabata:
Career Contact Percentage: Snider 75.6 / Tabata 82.9
Career Infield Fly Percentage: Snider 6.1 / Tabata 5.8
Career Strikeout Percentage: Snider 26.3 / Tabata 14.6
In the end, Hurdle said his decision to opt for Tabata over Barmes was based on previous evaluations done by bench coach Jeff Banister, who saw Tabata and Strasburg face each other in Arizona Fall League competition in 2009.
Tabata ended up hitting a fly ball deep enough to center field to bring Martin home as the tying run.
"He threw me two fastballs in and I said, 'Ok, he's got a breaking ball and changeup,'" Tabata said. "I've got to stay on it and hit it to the middle of the field. He threw me a breaking ball and that's what I did."
Tactics III (Bottom of the 7th continued)
After Tabata's sacrifice fly tied the game, Nationals manager Matt Williams decided to intentionally walk Travis Snider to face Josh Harrison. The walk put runners on first and second with two outs.
Presumably, Williams' decision was based on getting the platoon advantage. However, he also put the Pirates' hottest hitter in a situation to win the game.
The decision really came down to weighing hot/cold streaks against platoon splits. Williams chose to bet against the hot streak.
Harrison ended up hitting a single up the middle, Marte scored, and the Bucs went ahead for good.
Harrison said he was not surprised they walked Snider in front of him with first base open.
"It's a baseball move that's been made for years," Harrison said. "You don't hold a grudge, but at the same time you are kind of excited you get a chance to help the team."
Harrison's said his recent hot streak didn't make him any more confident than usual.
"Regardless of how I'm rolling, I'm going to be confident," Harrison said. "After my three at-bats I felt I had saw everything he could throw me, so I was just waiting for something to show up that I could handle and put a good swing on."
In the pregame post, we looked at a new way to calculate pitching wins based on a method development by Tom Tango. In tonight's game we have first disparity between the old and the new.
Cole went six innings, but left the game with the Pirates trailing 2-1. The Pirates rallied back to take the lead in the seventh, which ended up handing the vulture win to Jared Hughes, who only pitched one inning. Using the Tango Wins, however, Gerrit Cole is credited with tonight's win, improving his Tango Win-Loss record to 3-2. (His won-loss record using traditional rules remains 4-3.)
Summing up tonight's pitching matchup, the atmosphere and the win, Cole said, "Sold out, Saturday night, beautiful day. What more could you ask for?"