The Pirates dropped another one-run game to the Reds, and while this one wasn't the comedy of unforced errors we saw Friday night, it was equally dispiriting. For reasons within, and some outside of, the organization's control, the club is relying on pitchers like Steven Brault, Drew Hutchison and Trevor Williams late in the season. The Pirates don't know exactly what they have, nor what to expect, from a lot of the guys on whom they are depending. Indeed, they are basically conducting auditions for 2017 while playing meaningful games. Perhaps this all bodes well for future September runs, but right now it just makes for an odd playoff chase — if, indeed, that is what this still is.
After the Pirates jumped out to four-run lead (which included a two-run homer by Jung Ho Kang) in the first three innings, Hutchison got dinged for four runs and five hits in the fourth. Williams allowed three runs in the fifth and suddenly the Pirates were in a deep hole. However, Josh Harrison jolted the Bucs back into the game with a two-run double in the fourth. Joey Votto homered off Juan Nicasio in the ninth to push the Reds back out to two-run lead. The Pirates' offense struck back in the ninth for a run, but were unable to push the tying run home as Jordy Mercer grounded into a force play to end it, leaving Alen Hanson stranded at second.
Death by a thousand cuts
We didn't learn much about Hutchison in his Pirates debut. The pitching line is messy, but he wasn't hit as hard as the eight hits and four runs would suggest. All the hits were singles and some of them just plan bad luck. But, still, just from an eye test of his stuff, there isn't much that jumps off the page.
On the positive side, Hutchison didn't walk anybody and he collected three strikeouts, including a nice sequence against Votto. He made his way through the first three innings without allowing a run, but the fourth was a cascade of singles, with a hit batter mixed in. The right-hander was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning after only 73 pitches.
Afterwards, Clint Hurdle spoke of Hutchison like a project that the team feels it can fix. In particular, Hurdle said they noticed the right-hander hurries out of his stretch when he gets in a jam. They believe this is partly responsible for the big innings that have plagued his career recently.
"The one at-bat against Votto, I think you got to see a little bit of what the guy's got in him." Hurdle said. "There are things there that you like. That one inning in the stretch has kind of complicated things for him. There is a difference [out of the stretch]. It's something we've noticed. It's something we're on to. And it's something we're going to try to help him with."
Williams took over the in the fifth and allowed three runs on four hits. But, here again, the pitching line doesn't tell the whole story. Two of the hits were infield singles, with one of them coming on a sacrifice bunt attempt that the Pirates reacted to about as well as you'd expect from a team on the first day of spring training. It is perplexing how a team fighting for its survival in a playoff race can look so ragged, at times.
"I think on the right side John [Jaso] thought that normally when you bunt with guys on first and second you're bunting to the third base side but they [pushed it to the other side]," Hurdle said. "We didn't react well and get an out. We needed to get an out there and change the dynamic of the inning."
Josh Harrison doubled in the top of the sixth to score two runs and pull the Pirates back into the game, 7-6. Halfway between first and second Harrison pulled up and starting limping. He barely made it to second, as he barely lunged head-first the final five feet. When the play ended, he laid the ground and rested his head on second base. The Pirates later announced that he suffered "right groin discomfort." Hurdle didn't have an update on his condition.
Votto discusses his selectively-aggressive approach
Joey Votto put on hitting exhibition at PNC Park Saturday. He went 4-5, with a double and home run mixed in. After a slow start to the season, he is now batting a jaw-dropping .429/.518/.672 since the All-Star Break.
Back in April I talked to Votto about art of patient hitting. After Saturday's dominating performance, I thought I'd share some of that conversation along with some observations.
I began by asking Votto how he developed such an elite selectively-aggressive approach. His response was so unique that it's stuck with me all summer.
"It picked me," Votto said. "I didn't pick it, right. You've got a cross section of guys that are successful. That's all it is. It picked me."
When I pressed him further, "Well, you must have consciously developed it over time. What was that process?" He again pointed to a something seemingly outside himself.
"I was just good enough," Votto said. "[Other patient hitters like me] have it. I'd say the one percent of the one percent of the one percent that have it. If there is 100 million baseball players out there, we're the one percent."
Votto views his special skill set as something that animates him, rather than a manifestation of a deliberate choice that he authored at some point in his baseball upbringing. It's something he, in a sense, lives with.
I asked him if this skill comes from his temperament, or if it's just physical. And, again, his response pointed to an interesting relationship he has with an approach that he's perfected to such a high art form.
"I don't know," he said, pausing for a few seconds. "It would have to be, right?"
It is a mystery to Votto exactly why he is one of best selective hitters in the game. As such, he said he wasn't sure if he could teach it. But he was able to describe, by analogy, the way he thinks about each plate appearance.
"It's like a boxer who is always trying to lead the guy into his straight," Votto said. "You have to manipulate him with your footwork. Same type of thing in baseball. You have to figure out a way to funnel him into your hot zone. That comes with patience and that comes with accepting or realizing there will be some error on their side.
"It's almost like as a hitter you have to be a counter-puncher. The best way to be a counter-puncher is just to sit and wait and absorb and then counter with whatever you think your strength is."
Votto offense game is so potent right now and his approach so sound, it is worth taking the time to appreciate the craftsmanship being performed at such high level of perfection.