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Postgame: Pirates all-in with fatigue prevention program

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

When Jung-ho Kang was announced as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night with a man on first, two outs in the bottom of the seventh and the Pirates trailing 2-1, the fans stood in unison and roared in anticipation. One man behind the Pirates' dugout appeared so overcome with hope that he threw his head back and raised his shaking hands to the sky as if thanking something divine.

But Jon Lester was unfazed by the pounding noise and struck out Kang on five pitches.

"That was a big strikeout," Lester said. "The momentum [started] going their way and we were able to get it back on our side a little bit."

Kang's at-bat wasn't the biggest of the inning. Two batters earlier, Michael Morse had hit into a pivotal double play that scored a run but also bled the bases dry and nipped a mini-uprising in the bud.

"I got a good pitch to hit," Morse said. "He just got it enough down that it hit the lower part of my barrel. I was just thinking sac fly, get it in the air, but he's a very good pitcher and he knows how to get those ground balls."

Lester went on to throw a complete game, allowing only five hits and one run. He struck out nine and only walked one.

"That's the goal every time you go out there," Lester said. "Finish the game. Nowadays we don't get to do that so when you do it's, I guess, a little more special than just finishing seven or having a cleaner game than that. It was good."

But back to the Kang at-bat.

The reaction from the crowd when Kang emerged from the dugout to pinch hit was the loudest cheer of the night, indicating that (for good reason) he has become one of the most trusted offensive players on the roster. Based on the response on Twitter, I assume that the cheering was also infused with pent up frustration that he wasn't in the starting lineup to begin with.

Pedro Florimon started the game at short instead Kang or Jordy Mercer. Indeed, only one Pirates starter from the first game of the doubleheader started in the nightcap.

During his postgame comments, Hurdle said that held both of his starting shortstops out starting lineup in order to give them rest.

Resting players during the stretch run of a division race understandably doesn't sit well with fans. But it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as Neal Huntington clearly spelled out the rationale behind what the Pirates are doing with player rest this past Sunday.

"We're at the point in the year where a rested club is as important as a good club," Huntington said. "Sometimes a rested club is better than a non-rested good club. We're trying to fight that battle of keeping our guys strong and fresh while at the same time putting this club in a position to win every game going forward."

This year's team was built on versatility. Since spring training, both Hurdle and Huntington have talked about using the Golden State Warriors as template. From the beginning, the blueprint was of a versatile team so that, night after night, they could field a major league lineup of fresh players. It may not always be the best lineup on paper, but the front office is committed to one fundamental equation that explains what we are seeing and what we will see more of the rest of the way: A rested team > a non-rested good team.

It is that equation that will be put to the test over the rest of the month. It is that equation that that the Pirates are counting on being this year's hidden inefficiency. And perhaps it is that equation that helped the Pirates to a 20-10 record over their last 30 games (heading into Tuesday), which is tied for best in the National League and four games better than the Cardinals.

Starting Florimon over Kang in a pivotal game, in a key series, in the thick of a pennant race is perplexing. But we should know better by now than to think it is simply madness. Instead, it is science, or at least it is based on the best science the Pirates' analytical team has come up with to date. And it is a science they believe in.

When Hurdle was asked over the weekend what goes into his decisions to rest players, he said: "I rely upon a lot of people here who have more knowledge of rest and workloads and reps. We have some metrics we use, as well. So, I just accumulate the information and talk [to the trainers] personally."

But Hurdle admitted the metrics aren't perfect yet.

"We're still working through trying to come up with a better metric program along the lines of purposeful rest," he said. "It's still a work in progress. We don't want to just sell out to the name of the back of the jersey where he has to play every inning and get every at-bat."

The interesting story the rest of the way is how well the Pirates' fatigue prevention program will work down the stretch. They are confidently pushing their chips in on the belief that they've got a system in place that gives them advantage, even if it isn't perfect.

This front office relied on an ingenious and unconventional run prevention two years ago to break the franchise's 21-year postseason drought. This season they have fatigue prevention program, which they hope takes them the final few steps towards breaking a 36-year drought.

The Pirates are taking a gamble, and it is a gamble that involves the unlikely pairing of faith and science: they are showing faith in the new science of player fatigue they've developed. It'll be interesting to watch it play out, to say the least.