Tonight’s game was easily the most frustrating in recent memory — and it’s certainly no coincidence that this was also the first game the Pirates have played in Cincinnati this season.
Never mind the supposedly intentional bean-balling and brush-backs with which the Reds seem to literally be bullying the Bucs. (More on this later.)
Never mind that the Pirates lost the game 4-1 and now fall further behind their rivals in the Central standings.
It’s how they lost that was so aggravatingly, infuriatingly irritating.
1. Wasting the interim ace’s work
I wrote before the game that Pittsburgh should win this game if it wants to exit the Queen City feeling anything but crushed. The reason for that: Francisco Liriano is the most consistent — and peripherally excellent — starter left in the Pirates’ rotation, while two of the next three starters are essentially crap-shoots.
Well, Liriano certainly lived up to his billing, tossing six innings of five-hit, two-walk baseball while compiling six strikeouts.
But two of those five hits were solo homers by Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. Like, legitimate, out-of-any-park homers. They were also the first home runs Liriano allowed as a Pirate (in 45 IP). Starling Marte made a ridiculously athletic catch — preceded by as efficient a route as humanly possible — in left, which staved off an early scoring chance for Cincy, but the effort was to no avail (other than some classic Greg Brown hyperbole).
That those long balls were the only run-scoring hits Liriano allowed, though, becomes all the more frustrating when you consider that’s how the Reds scored ALL of their runs tonight.
Which leads me to Pt. 2:
2. Bryan Morris and the long ball
Look, I like Morris and think he will be a valuable arm in the bullpen in the very near future. With that said, he should not have gone out in the bottom of the eighth — for his second inning of work — when Tony Watson was available.
This move isn’t so egregious and it’s certainly not what boiled my blood the most because Morris does have solid career splits against lefties and there was no guarantee he’d face more than one (Joey Votto hit third; Jay Bruce was due up fourth). But I feel like Clint Hurdle has used Watson in that type of situation probably eight-of-every-10 opportunities. (I didn’t research what his usage actually is, but that’s just my gut feeling.)
Of course tonight it bites Hurdle and the Bucs in the ass, as Morris surrenders two opposite-field, solo blasts to Votto and Bruce. Votto’s would have been an edge-of-the-grass/warning-track fly-out if the game wasn’t at Great American Ballpark.
The Pirates were playing in the same park at the same time, too, but they didn’t take advantage. But it’s tough to use a bandbox ballpark for its purpose when your manager prefers to have a hitter intentionally avoid a hit like Votto’s.
3. The #@$%*&! bunt
Here’s the scenario:
Before going any further, I want that to sink in as much as possible. Hurdle (I’m assuming it was his decision) calls for a bunt with 2/3 of the Pirates’ given outs already exhausted. He gives Mike Leake a break after walking the leadoff batter. He takes the bat out of the hands of a guy who he wants to receive more at-bats. Hell, maybe the tough-guy Reds would’ve hit Mercer if Hurdle had given him more responsibility at the plate than Francisco Liriano.
So after that backward thinking, let’s move forward with the remainder of the inning.
4. Mike Leake?!
This one’s short. Leake’s line: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
5. That this is even being discussed
It doesn’t matter that Andrew McCutchen got plunked in the back by Leake in the fourth inning of a 0-0 game. It doesn’t matter that Neil Walker was blown over by a 100 mph Aroldis Chapman missile in the ninth inning of 4-1 game. And it matters even less that the Pirates didn’t retaliate.
What would be the point of Liriano coming out in the bottom of the fourth and hitting Jay Bruce with his first pitch? Great — both benches are warned and now Cozart hits a two-run homer and the Pirates lose by more runs. Even worse, what if that stupid retaliation turns into an even stupider brawl and someone is suspended — say, like, Liriano! Now James McDonald is forced to start a game and you can already put that one in the loss column.
I realize that that’s probably too dramatic of a chain of events, but it’s not entirely impossible. Major League Baseball is going to start restricting this type of play sooner than ever in light (or darkness) of all the Dodgers’ fracases.
But even if nothing of the disciplinarian sort occurs, you’re still stuck with the fact that the Reds are outplaying the Pirates on the field and in the mind. I can’t say for certain that the beanings rile the team up as much as they do the fans/media, but I really don’t think Leake is hitting McCutchen there for the sake of being tough.
I think Leake’s not afraid to pitch inside to the Pirates’ best hitter because, hey, even if he hits him, what’s the worst that can happen? A sacrifice bunt that MAYBE advances the runner 90 feet? The badass appearance Leake gets in return just becomes a bonus at that point.
The easy way for Pittsburgh to remedy this slight — if that’s what it even is — is by hitting the crap out of Cincy’s batters. The tougher, better way is by beating the Reds.