For a night everything's better
Michael Jackson's "Beat it" played over the speakers as Andrew McCutchen joked with Jordy Mercer's 4-year old son, Maverick, calling him "Cervelli" because he was clanking through the clubhouse in oversized catcher's equipment. With his postgame interviews behind him, the Pirates center fielder jumped on to his scooter and zigged-zagged his way towards the exit, humming along with the music as he navigated.
McCutchen will tell anyone who asks that his confidence never wavers. He expects to play at elite level. But he's had a well-documented rough go of it for over a year now, and things continued to tumble Tuesday night when he was part of a double switch that created something of a stir both within and outside the clubhouse. However, after a 2-for-4 night, which included an important two-run single and two stolen bases, for at least one night everything seemed a little better.
He's played better games — nights in which he's put the team on the his back and led them to wins single handedly. On Wednesday he was just another contributor to what amounted to a total team victory. But afterwards he was clearly satisfied or, perhaps more accurately, he displayed the burst of playful energy that comes with relief. Whatever he felt, when he cut the scooter hard to the right and headed down hallway out of sight, he left behind an enviable impression of someone who just had a much needed good day at work.
Double switch put to bed
The day started with Clint Hurdle forcefully brushing aside any suggestions that Tuesday night's double switch involving McCutchen had anything to do with the center fielder's offensive struggles:
"Last night, that move needs to be made," Hurdle said firmly. "I've seen [Tony] La Russa make it with [Albert] Pujols. I've seen it made with big players. I even walked Andrew through [the reason for the move]. That move needed to be made to give us the best opportunity to win the game, independent of how he is swinging the bat."
While Hurdle was talking to the media, McCutchen was on the field taking early and extended batting practice. Afterwards he sat on the top rail of the Pirates dugout and granted an extended interview to Pirates beat writer, Rob Biertempfel. Contrary to his manager, McCutchen believes the double switch was performance related, but he blamed himself for putting Hurdle in that position in the first place. [McCutchen's full comments here]
While McCutchen was being interviewed, Hurdle stood on the third base line, bat in hand, watching infield drills. As he chatted with Tom Prince, he continuously glanced over at the conversation on the dugout rail. One will never know if he was worried about what McCutchen was saying, or if he was incredulous that his decision from the night before was generating so much controversy, but it clearly had his attention and it made for an interesting, even uncomfortable, scene.
With the double switch imbroglio behind them, the Pirates sent Gerrit Cole to the mound to try to slow down the sizzling Nationals offense. And he did exactly that. With tremendous efficiency and a good dose of support from his defense, Cole went seven strong innings and allowed only one run along the way.
"They're a really good hitting ball and they're going to be aggressive," Cole said. "If you stare at the batting averages and the names on the back of the jersey, it can be a little overwhelming. You just need to stick with the process and control what you can control."
Cole didn't bulldoze the Nationals with raw power and electric stuff; instead, he seduced them. Hurdle said that it wouldn't "make a lot sense" to "try to strike everybody out" because the lineup is so tough. Rather, the goal was to induce weak contact by jumping ahead in counts and dictating the spots in the zone where contact would be made.
"He threw 20-of-25 first pitch strikes," Hurdle said. "He followed his game plan extremely well. Textbook, followed it from start to finish. Ray [Searage] helped walk him through it. He used all four pitches. Fastball command set everything up. So, really well done."
Wednesday night was the fourth start this season, and third time in a row, that Cole has made it to the seventh. Last year he only made it to the seventh three times. Hurdle said that health is the biggest factor behind Cole's rediscovered ability to drive deep into games.
"He wasn't healthy enough last year to really get into that lane," Hurdle said. "I know that it was in his mindset [this spring] that he wanted to be more efficient with his pitches and pitch deeper."
On the night, Cole allowed three hits and one run over seven innings. He walked two and struck out three.
The Pirates defense also chipped in with a series of nice plays. David Freese made two excellent stops, Josh Bell added a nice pick to his left and Francisco Cervelli picked off a runner on second.
"We played really good defense and kept them off the board so we could strike first," Cole said. "Excellent game all around by the team."
The offense supports
Over the first five innings it looked like a tired script was going to play itself out again. Cole was working quick scoreless innings without any offensive support. But in the bottom of the sixth Josh Bell lofted a three-run home run into the right field stands to put the Pirates in front. In the seventh, they tacked on three more, two of which came a single by McCutchen off the Clemente Wall.
"We always want to get runs for whoever is out on the mound, not just Gerrit just because he hasn't had run support" McCutchen said with a smirk. "We wanted to get some runs and we did it and that's all that matters. We got a couple of guys on and Bell delivered the swing for us and we didn't stop there."
The Pirates generated offense up and down the order, collecting seven hits and six walks. In addition to Bell and McCutchen's big hits, John Jaso walked three times, Adam Frazier singled twice, Francisco Cervelli walked twice and Jordy Mercer and Gift Ngoepe singled.
"Just a good connected offense tonight," Hurdle said.
The Pirates go for a series win Thursday afternoon with Tyler Glasnow facing off against Tanner Roark.