clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Postgame: Two ground balls lead to two very different results, as the Cardinals slip past the Pirates

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Notes and quotes from the postgame:

Two similar ground balls / two very different results

The Cardinals hit a pair of playable ground balls to the same area in consecutive innings that led to two dramatically different results, shifts of momentum and story lines.

In the top of the sixth, with the Bucs up 1-0 and one out, the Cardinals loaded the bases on a double-walk-walk sequence. The leverage index at this point was 4.79, which means the situation was about five times more determinative and pressure-filled than average (1.00 is average leverage, 1.5 and above is considered high leverage). With Oscar Taveras at the plate, Francisco Liriano opened with a fastball out of the zone. On the next pitch, Taveras hit a one-hopper to a drawn-in and slightly shifted Josh Harrison. Harrison immediately went home for the first out. Russell Martin then quickly hopped towards the mound to get a better angle for his throw to first and unleashed a bullet to Pedro Alvarez that just beat Taveras to the bag for a double play. It was a very fine play in a clutch situation. If things had worked out differently, it would have been the decisive play of the game.

However, as it turned out, the game-changer would come an inning later when a similarly angled ground ball found an open hole and escaped into the outfield and ended up putting the Cardinals ahead for good.

In the seventh, the Cardinals mounted a rally to tie the game 1-1, and with two outs had runners on second and third against a suddenly wobbly Jared Hughes. With Matt Holliday up, Hughes threw a first-pitch sinker that resulted in a ground ball almost exactly into the hole between short and third that Harrison had covered earlier. This time Harrison was too close to the line to make a play, and a sprinting and eventually sprawling Jordy Mercer was unable to get to the ball before it reached left field. Both runners scored and the Cardinals took a 3-1 lead.

"I still have confidence in that pitch and I still have confidence in our team, and I think if continue to throw sinkers down in the zone, a ground ball will be hit to people and tomorrow will be a different outcome," Hughes said in a firm, direct cadence that concealed his frustration with the play that turned the game.

The decisions in the seventh

When Liriano came out to pitch the top of the seventh he was sitting at 86 pitches and had not allowed a run, while striking out eight and walking three. Two of those walks had come the inning before, so it was clear he was a short leash. Kolten Wong opened the inning with a infield hit to deep short that prompted Clint Hurdle to make a pitching change. Wong's single was not struck particularly hard, and if had been five feet in either direction it likely would have been an easy out. Nonetheless, the hit was enough to end Liriano's night.

I sometimes find it odd that a manager will bring a pitcher out to throw one more inning, then quickly pull him after a hit that could have been just as easily turned into an out. Certainly, Liriano didn't suddenly tire, and he had not gone to a three-ball count on Wong. Ultimately, though, it is a minor complaint, and it is hard to argue with Hurdle's decision to go with as Hughes, who has been fairly effective all year.

"Basically, my job is to take them out before they give up runs," Hurdle said of his decision to remove Liriano at that point. "When you do bring in someone and they do give up runs, that's on me."

After he entered the game, Hughes almost immediately picked off Wong from first base and was ahead 0-and-2 on Tony Cruz. But then Hughes made a mistake and left a pitch up that Cruz drove for a single to left center field. Hurdle isolated the importance of that at bat afterwards.

"We had one out and an 0-and-2 count on the catcher with the pitcher going to hit next and we weren't able to close the inning and they ended up plating three runs," Hurdle said.

After John Lackey sacrificed Cruz to second, Hughes got too cautious with Matt Carpenter and walked him. With runners now on first and second and two outs, the Cardinals brought left-handed hitter Jon Jay to pinch hit for Peter Bourjos. Justin Wilson was warming in the bullpen, but Hurdle decided to stick with Hughes. Jay ended up hitting a game-tying single to center field.

"They're a bunch a different numbers you can look at," Hurdle said. "But, Hughes, gosh, he's been so good against everybody and this was just a night he wasn't able to get the ball to where he wanted to get it to."

Bright spots

Although tonight's loss stings and puts pressure on the Bucs to win two straight against two very fine starters, Pedro Alvarez's recent home runs and Liriano's fine pitching performance are two important and positive takeaways from tonight's game.

Alvarez hit another opposite-field home run in the first inning, his third in as many days. Displaying that easy stroke that packs virtually unparalleled power, Alvarez may be warming up for one of his offensive outbreaks. And, perhaps more importantly, Liriano returned to form after a tough outing and pitched like a staff ace again.

"Today my fastball was working better than in my last start," Liriano said. "It feels good, but we got the loss so [it's tough]."

"His fastball was terrific," Hurdle said. "The velocity was firm, he was able to get it to both sides. A couple jams he was able to get out of. I thought it was a real, real good game by Frank."

58th meltdown

Last season, Pirates relievers recorded only 53 meltdowns and posted a league leading 9.38 WPA (i.e. added nine wins). Obviously, it's been a different story this season.

With Jared Hughes' meltdown in the seventh inning, the Bucs now have 58 meltdowns and the bullpen has added only one win (1.02 WPA).

Certainly, the bullpen could not be expected to repeat last season's performance, and tonight's loss was as much about a lack of offense as it was about the meltdown, but the drop-off in performance from the bullpen has been steep and consequential.

Taking a base on Holliday

In the last two seasons Matt Holliday has allowed the most runs due to his throwing arm amongst qualified outfielders, -12.2 runs. He ranks second worst in Fangraphs' ARM score this season, -6.6 runs.

In the first inning, Josh Harrison revealed the Pirates' intention to put his arm to the test by stretching out a line drive hit to Holliday's left into a double to start the game. It was a close play at second, but the throw pulled Wong off to the outfield side of second base, providing the extra space and time Harrison needed to slide in safely.

The Bucs ended up stranding Harrison at third, as Neil Walker ended up knocking into an inning ending double play.

As they have in the past, it'll be interesting to watch the Pirates continue to test Holliday's arm in the remaining five games they play against the Cardinals.

Squandered opportunities early

The Bucs looked like they would get to John Lackey early and open up some breathing space, but a double play in the first inning erased a first and third, one out, situation, and a long drive by Harrison in the second was mere feet from landing over the head of Holliday and scoring two runs. All told the Bucs collected five hits over the first two innings and only scored one run. After the second, Lackey settled down and pitched well before turning the game over to his bullpen, but the Pirates still squandered the few opportunities they had in the final seven innings by hitting into two more double plays and losing a base runner on a strike 'em out-throw em out play.

"It was a was a well pitched game by both starters," Hurdle said. "[There] wasn't much wiggle room for error."

Infield hits

In the bottom of the second inning, the Pirates added to their National League-leading infield hit percentage, as both Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer hit back-to-back infield singles. Their 7.5 percent clip is a full percent ahead of last year's pace. Andrew McCutchen and Marte lead the team with 17 apiece, and Harrison has added 14 infield hits.