The Pirates lost the NL Wild Card game to the Giants 8-0 Wednesday after a dominating performance by Madison Bumgarner and a very strange one by Clint Hurdle.
There's plenty of blame to go around here, and no one person taking care of business would have turned this mess of a loss into a win. The Pirates managed just four hits, all singles, as Madison Bumgarner proved to be very difficult to handle. His stuff is good for a lefty, and he's a craftsman too, tempting batters with high fastballs and then getting them to swing at offspeed stuff in the dirt. Bumgarner threw a complete game and struck out 10, and it probably wouldn't have mattered who pitched this game from the Pirates' side.
Okay, fine, but let's talk about Hurdle's beyond-ridiculous managing. Let's give him a bit of a pass for the decision to start Edinson Volquez over Gerrit Cole. It didn't work, but it might have, and there surely was some truth to the idea that there's value in effectively telling your players that you believe in them and you're going for it. I wanted the Pirates to start Cole today, but the decision between starting Cole on Sunday instead or waiting to have him pitch today was probably pretty close in terms of the Pirates' chances of advancing to the NLDS.
So let's forget about that, and let's talk about the differences between managing a Wild Card game and managing some random Tuesday-night game in the regular season. In a Wild Card game, there is no tomorrow to play for. If things don't go your way, you make every possible desperate short-term adjustment you possibly can, because there is no long term.
Hurdle showed no awareness of the circumstances in play today. First, he had two more starters in reserve, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke, plus six other bullpen arms. Volquez got through three scoreless innings to start the game, which is great, although there were warning signs even then, with a few hard-hit outs, including one Andrew McCutchen had to dive to catch.
In the fourth inning, the warning signs turned into red flashing alarms. Sandoval hit a line-drive single, and then Hunter Pence singled.
At that point, I think there was already a reasonable case for getting Volquez the heck out of there. Hurdle didn't even have anyone warming up. You wouldn't be so aggressive in a regular season game, of course, but given the unusual circumstances, a manager ought to be decisive. Volquez isn't an ace. He isn't head and shoulders above every other pitcher the Pirates have. And the Bucs had plenty of options, and no tomorrow to play for. So why wait? Get him out of there.
Instead, Volquez walked Brandon Belt. He might as well have then started theatrically sagging his shoulders like a pixelated pitcher in an old video game. Why Hurdle left him to face Brandon Crawford is beyond me. And so Volquez threw a few pitches and then hung a curveball that Crawford bashed over the Clemente Wall. 4-0 Giants.
Given how Bumgarner was pitching, the Pirates' chances of winning once that happened were remote. But there was no reason not to try. And so I was surprised when Hurdle let Volquez pitch the remainder of the fourth inning, and then the fifth as well. In the sixth, Volquez issued a leadoff walk to Pence, and then Hurdle finally replaced Volquez with Justin Wilson.
Again, this was a win-or-go-home situation. If this had been a regular season game, then fine -- bring in Justin Wilson. I don't even hate Wilson as a pitcher. But if I had to pick one guy from the Pirates' staff most likely to turn a bad game into a full-on dumpster fire, it would be Wilson, because he often doesn't know where the ball is going. Wilson promptly threw a wild pitch, moving Pence to second. Brandon Belt then hit a ground ball single that Neil Walker couldn't corral, and the Giants went up 5-0. Wilson struck out one batter and walked another before giving way to Jared Hughes.
Okay, to the seventh. Hughes gave up two ground ball singles and a walk to his first three batters, then got a mound visit (because apparently there was no option but to let Hughes work his way through it). He got one force out, then gave up a liner to Belt that cost the Pirates two more runs to make it 7-0. Hurdle then replaced Hughes with Bobby LaFromboise, who got a double play.
So let's hit the timeout button here. It's the seventh inning of a do-or-die game that's getting worse and worse. Here is a list of pitchers the Pirates have used.
Everybody see the problem? No Gerrit Cole, no Francisco Liriano (for reasons that are semi-defensible, sure), no Mark Melancon, no Tony Watson. No game for six more months. And the Pirates let pitchers like Volquez and Wilson decide how their season ended.
Anyway, John Holdzkom pitched the eighth and gave up a run. I almost wonder if the Pirates pulled the K-Rod trick a little bit early with him, and if they might not have been better served to bring him up about two weeks ago so that other teams had a little less time to adjust. Brent Morel pinch-hit in the eighth, and then Melancon pitched the ninth for no real reason.
Now, again, it's fairly likely that none of this would have mattered. Bumgarner dominated the Pirates tonight. It's possible that Cole could have started and pitched brilliantly for eight innings, and the Pirates still would have lost 1-0. The only players to even get one or more hits tonight were Josh Harrison, Starling Marte and Russell Martin. The lack of offense was the biggest problem.
But it was extremely frustrating to see Clint Hurdle act like he had no idea how to adjust to a unique situation. I think he's mostly a terrific manager for the Pirates, and in the past couple years, in particular, he's been invisible at a lot of the right times. He's a genuine leader, and he's good at his job. But it's always curious to me how otherwise competent people can fail to make adjustments when they're in unfamiliar contexts. Sometimes in poker, you'll see great professional players do a hilariously poor job of adjusting to very bad players, because they just don't play against bad players very much. Hurdle gets few opportunities to manage do-or-die games, and that showed tonight.
After Crawford's grand slam, the once-raucous crowd at PNC Park died down, and the late innings were frequently quiet, as if it were a crowd of 12,000 watching an average Thursday afternoon game in May. There was a nice moment near the end, as Martin took his last plate appearance of the game and tipped his cap to an appreciative crowd. Tonight's game could mark then ends of the Pirates careers of Martin, Liriano and Volquez. Despite the disappointing result today, it's been another very good season, and I don't want to lose track of that. We should feel grateful for what the Pirates have given us this year, and hopefully I'll explore that theme in more depth over the next few days. In the meantime, though, this loss is going to sting.