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Clint Hurdle pulls the right strings, Pirates bullpen falls apart anyway for 9-5 loss to Cubs

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Pirates bullpen doesn’t have enough Felipe Riveros.

The Pirates bullpen doesn’t have enough good pitchers, period. That’s a major reason why they allowed six Cubs runs in the top of the ninth for a come-from-ahead 9-5 loss on Friday night.

What isn’t — or at least shouldn’t — be considered at fault is Clint Hurdle’s deployment of Rivero, his relief ace.

The Pirates held a 4-3 lead through seven innings, thanks largely to a home run and a triple from Josh Bell. With left-hander Anthony Rizzo, switch hitter Ian Happ and left-hander Kyle Schwarber due up in the top of the eighth, Hurdle brought in his best reliever to face the toughest part of the Chicago lineup. Rivero, though he gave up a double to the rookie Happ, did his part, fanning Rizzo and Addison Russell to throw up a big zero on the board. No matter what number inning, it was incredibly important.

Now, Russell ran up 10 pitches in his at-bat. For that, perhaps he’s the Cubs’ player of the game. Rivero racked up 20 pitches in the inning, and there are two more games with the Cubs to come, followed by seven more big divisional games without an off day. For all that, I understand not stretching Rivero two innings in this game. The Pirates need more good relievers; they don’t need to run their one elite bullpen arm into the ground in the regular season.

So, on to Juan Nicasio it was for the ninth inning. And he’s been pretty solid this year. But he put four straight batters on base — a double by Jason Heyward, a game-tying double by Willson Contreras, a single by Tommy La Stella and an intentional walk to Kris Bryant, a late-inning sub. He could’ve done this in the eighth inning, and a lot of people complaining now would’ve let the manager completely off the hook for that.

Instead Nicasio was in to blow the almighty save, and that’s a bigger deal to many, still, than losing the lead with your best reliever sitting on his hands in the bullpen, unused. Do the Pirates need better relievers to buttress Rivero and hold leads? Of course. There’s blame to be doled out there.

Hurdle managed this particular game quite well, though, and should have nothing to apologize for. He’s been stubborn enough with things I haven’t liked, and I certainly hope he’s stubborn about this. I hope he continues to use his best bullpen arm in the toughest spots, and not necessarily the ninth inning.

Anyway, Tony Watson came into a bases-loaded, no-out situation, because he was what Hurdle had left, and gave up a few more hits as the Cubs took, then padded their lead. Watson couldn’t finish out the inning, needing Jhan Marinez to get Heyward, the 10th batter of the inning, for the final out.

The Pirates did threaten Wade Davis somewhat in the bottom of the ninth. Andrew McCutchen doubled to lead off, and Francisco Cervelli singled him home. The Bucs loaded the bases with one out, but both Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco went down swinging to end the game.

The game started with an odd top of the first that had Trevor Williams and the Pirates in a 3-0 hole.

Rizzo, leading off, hit a towering shot initially ruled fair for a home run, but that call was changed to a foul ball. Cubs manager Joe Maddon got ejected two pitches into the game. Rizzo eventually walked. A wild pitch and a two-run double by Contreras accounted for the three Cubs runs, though a strong relay nabbed Contreras trying to stretch his hit into a triple.

Williams eventually found his footing (5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K), and Bell put the Pirates on the board with a solo, opposite-field home run to the North Side Notch in the fifth.

The Pirates should’ve gotten to Eddie Butler earlier, but they finally did in the sixth. Adam Frazier led off with a single, he was still there after two outs, but David Freese walked and Bell drove the two in and chased Butler with a triple played oddly by Heyward in right. Facing Justin Grimm, McCutchen bounced an infield hit to plate Bell for the go-ahead run.