No time for a Plan B
When they were eliminated from the division race, Clint Hurdle said the Pirates simply had to go to Plan B in order to reach the World Series. "So what, now what," was the mindset, he said.
The Pirates crafted a controversial Plan A for Wednesday's Wild Card Game. A lineup heavily weighted toward run prevention meant they were committed to carrying an extremely low-scoring game into the late innings. If things went according to plan, they could either shut the game down with their bullpen, or keep it close enough to effectively deploy their offensive weapons against the Cubs' weak flank after Arrieta left.
When the Cubs jumped out to a 3-0 lead, however, the Pirates were forced to scrap Plan A in the bottom of the third. Pedro Alvarez was sent up to pinch hit for Sean Rodriguez, but with Jake Arrieta showing no vulnerabilities and receiving the benefit of the doubt on 50-50 calls on the corners, Plan B never really stood a chance.
Until it did, for about three minutes, and then, with the PNC Park in an absolute frenzy, Starling Marte grounded into a hard hit double play that ended a bases loaded threat in the bottom of the sixth. As the few thousand white-clad Cubs fans celebrated wildly in the stands, the Pirates 2015 season for all intents and purposes came to a crushing end.
"You try different things to get things accomplished, and at the end of the day, everything we tried eventually got shut down or pushed back," Hurdle said.
Although he showed signs of getting slightly rattled in the sixth and seventh, Arrieta lived up to all the expectations and displayed a level of poise and domination not seen since, well, last year's Wild Card Game.
"We talk about bull riding and sometimes you draw a tough bull," Hurdle said. "Two years in a row we've drawn a tough bull."
Seventh inning mayhem
A brawl almost erupted in the top of the seventh when Tony Watson plunked Arrieta in the thigh with a first-pitch 93-mph sinker.
The prelude included Francisco Cervelli getting hit by an up-and-in pitch in the fifth and Josh Harrison catching one in the sixth. Also, in the previous half-inning the Pirates' season had been delivered its apparent final and fatal blow. With plenty of frustration ready to boil over, it did, and mayhem ensued.
Instead of heading immediately down to first after he was hit, Arrieta lingered and appeared to say something to Watson (although afterwards Watson said the conversation was actually with Cervelli). The Pirates' reliever bounded off the mound and the two pitchers ended up face-to-face. Soon the benches were clear, and a mass of players jousted back and forth just down the first base line. For almost a whole minute the scene teetered on the edge of reckless, adrenaline-fueled chaos.
"Well, you've got a pitcher that's dotting everything up, throwing four pitches for strikes, and Cervelli gets pitched hot up top, so I don't think anybody was a fan of that," Hurdle said.
By the time the clubhouse doors opened, all of the anger had died down. Watson defended his pitch, citing where Cervelli had been hit.
"Intentional or not, anything near the head we don't like that," Watson calmly explained. "You never want to intentionally hurt a guy, especially one that's having a historical second half. The butt's perfect [place to land the pitch]."
Sean Rodriguez was the most animated of the Pirates players involved in the scrum. He appeared to have thrown a punch on the field and he definitely landed a series of them on a gatorade cooler in the dugout.
Rodriguez said David Ross tried to choke him and that was the source his fury. Ross said his hand did end up on Rodriguez's throat, but it was unintentional.
"What I did afterwards is obviously wrong in the dugout, but I was pretty heated," Rodriguez said. "I mean, I couldn't control myself at that point. As a man, man-to-man, when someone grabs you by the neck, what are you going to do at that point?"
For the most part, the Pirates players downplayed the incident and spent the bulk of their time crediting Arrieta for his masterful performance.
"He takes advantage of the strike zone, that's what he does," Andrew McCutchen said. "He's going to get those calls that are a little off the plate. He's going to take advantage of it. That's what makes him difficult."
Cole trouble settling in
Gerrit Cole had a difficult outing and he appeared especially flustered in the early innings. He sprayed the ball all over and Cubs cashed in.
"I couldn't really get in a good rhythm," Cole said. "I wasn't able to make pitches when I needed to. I was trying to figure things out out there, trying to find something to go to, something to work. But it's just one of those nights."
The Pirates ace lasted only five innings, allowing six hits, four runs and two homers. He walked one and struck out four.
"It burns. It stings. It sucks," Cole said. "All the negative things you could come up with, that's how it feels right now. But it makes it a little easier to walk away from this knowing all the hard work we put in this year and all the wins we had to show for it in the regular season. I think we've built something sustainable here and that's something to look forward to."
As the press entered the clubhouse, reporters made a beeline for Neil Walker's locker. It's a scene that's played out so many times before, both before and after games. The media demands on him are more than any other Pirates player, and the realization that it might be his last media scrum weighed heavily on the scene.
"I'd be lying if I told you no," Walker said, when asked if the thought crossed his mind that his might be his last game as member of the franchise. "There's no telling. [Playing for the Pirates] is all I know. Tonight is too fresh at this point."
While Walker was speaking, players were hugging and shaking hands throughout the room.
A.J. Burnett and Cole embraced, with the young ace dropping his forehead on the veteran's shoulder. Burnett said something that made Cole laugh and they embraced again.
McCutchen approached Burnett and the center fielder burst into a wide grin. They shook hands, hugged and talked about seeing each other down the road. The procession of players saying their farewells to Burnett continued.
"Win the division," Burnett said later. "No more Wild Card junk [for these guys]."
As the clubhouse emptied, members of the press shook hands with the guys that helped them, often graciously, write the story of this season. Jordy Mercer and Walker sat together with drinks in hand and soaked in the scene. Pedro Alvarez joined them for a bit and moved along. Players continued to mingle and wish each other well.
These final scenes are poignant and slightly sad. I've experienced two of them, and this one was filled with more raw emotion. Last year, the prospect of losing Russell Martin dominated the room. This year, the reality that a very different team may be coming back in 2016 seemed to settle in almost immediately. Also, the fact that this was a very good, maybe even great, team, which abruptly finished well short of their goals, created a depressing sense of unfinished business, missed opportunity and unfulfilled expectations.
"Sports is hard," Hurdle said, reflecting on the season. "Life's not fair. You go out and play. You get beat, you move on. I thanked the guys for the incredible ride they took the coaching staff, the support staff, everybody in this clubhouse on this year. We went to some new places, we did some new things. We're continuing to grow and work hard to get better. We've got an opportunity in front of us to get better."