Bryce Harper lasered a two-run home run out of PNC Park in the ninth to push the Nationals ahead 8-4. It put the game, which had suddenly tightened in the seventh after a spirited Pirates rally, out of reach. Wade LeBlanc threw the home run pitch and three infielders pressed into outfield duty watched it disappear (Jose Osuna in left, Adam Frazier in center and John Jaso in right). It was another night in which the Pirates fielded a team that was completely outmanned on paper and then pushed around on the field.
Right now, the Pirates are hardly recognizable. It is a shell of the team that was built for this season. The roster is a mess, and we all know the reasons why. Worse yet, precisely when the club needs the still face of the franchise to carry them over troubled times, Andrew McCutchen has morphed into a barely replacement level player. The lineup the Pirates are fielding on a nightly basis is barely competitive; and the team is increasingly in danger of becoming buried too many games below .500 to ever recover. The pall of a 90-plus loss season and memories of dreary summers of the not-so-distant past weighs heavily over the scene, and there doesn't seem to be much that can be done about it.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Pirates rallied and scored three runs to make it 6-4. With two outs and Jose Osuna on third, McCutchen came to the plate with a chance to further cut into the lead. He struck out on five pitches. After his at bat, McCutchen was removed from the game as part of a double switch, with Osuna remaining in the game to play left and Frazier moved to center. It was the first time that anyone up in the press box could remember McCutchen being switched out of a tight game.
The tactics behind the move made sense. There was no guarantee McCutchen's spot would come back around and, given his other options on the bench, Hurdle said he wanted to give Osuna another chance to bat from the ninth spot.
While the double switch was tactically sound, the symbolism of the move is worth noting. Would Hurdle have made the same decision in 2013? Or in 2010, when the roster was in just as bad of shape? Probably not.
Over the last year, the organization has aggressively tried to trade McCutchen and then moved him to right field. Publicly, all the right things were said from all sides about the trade rumors and the position switch. But the night he returned to center field in St. Louis, McCutchen made demonstrably clear how he felt about returning to his "spot." After tonight's game, the Pirates centerfielder was nowhere to be seen in the clubhouse, where he usually lingers longer than most. That, in itself, may mean nothing. But it is widely known that McCutchen prides himself in not taking days off or being removed from games. One does wonder if tonight's double switch placed a little more stress on the relationship between him and the organization. It's simply not the type of move that a player with McCutchen's history, pride and status in the locker-room is used to. Moreover, despite what the organization says to the media, their actions certainly suggest that they've lost confidence in the idea that the "real McCutchen" will return to form soon.
The Washington Nationals brought the league's best offense to PNC Park Tuesday night and it laid a 10-hit (five for extra bases), six run thumping on Chad Kuhl over his four-plus innings pitched. The damage could have been worse, but a couple double plays and a line out to end the second prevented the game from getting completely out of hand.
"You got to think that is in the top three," Kuhl said, when asked about where the Nationals' lineup ranked amongst the ones he's faced. "They have guys that can put the ball in play, and the heart of the order can do damage."
In the postgame, the theme was Kuhl's velocity. He hit the high 90s on some fastballs and, according to Hurdle, that's not where he needs to be.
"I think sometimes he just gets involved in the game," Hurdle said. "And I'm not so sure added velocity helps. There was a time when his two-seamer and four-seamer were at about the same velocity and that's not a good indicator because you want some separation on those two pitches. ... There was something going on there. Maybe trying to reach back for something a little extra."
Kuhl acknowledged that he needs to amp down in order to get more movement on his sinker and separation between his pitches.
"Velocity didn't play as much as a better angled fastball would play," Kuhl said. "Two-seam was a little straighter and the four-seam was a mirror image of that. It felt like it was coming out hot."