NEW YORK -- When is the right time -- or is there a right time -- to bunt?
It is one of those baseball equations that sends the sports' statisticians scrambling for answers, and Exhibit A in the study might well be how Pirates wasted eight more scoreless innings from James McDonald and a leadoff double in the 10th to fall to the New York Mets, 1-0, on Nick Evans' walkoff single in the bottom half Monday night at Citi Field.
Go back to the top half ...
Andrew McCutchen opened by lining a double into the left-field corner. That brought the Pirates' first runner in scoring position since the fifth and, to boot, one of the fastest men in all of Major League Baseball.
Game: Pirates vs. New York Mets, 7:10 p.m., Citi Field.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (7-13, 5.47) vs. RHP R.A. Dickey (10-6, 2.91).
Key matchup: New York's leadoff man, Jose Reyes, is 7 for 21 in his career vs. Duke, with a home run, triple and three steals.
Of note: Dickey, the first knuckleballer the Pirates will have faced this year, has a 1.96 ERA at the Mets' cavernous new home, 3.96 everywhere else.
On deck was Jose Tabata, 9 for his past 17 with runners in scoring position, and a stirring .410 in that category since his June 9 debut. He also is proficient at going the opposite way, ideal for hitting behind the runner in this case.
In the hole was Neil Walker, owner of an 18-game hitting streak and a .330 average with runners in scoring position.
Surely, someone would drive him home.
Alas, Tabata was ordered to bunt, and he did so badly: The ball squibbed just in front of home plate, and New York catcher Josh Thole nailed McCutchen at third.
Tabata accepted blame, beyond consolation at his stall.
His only words: "I missed it."
Even McCutchen, who had no choice but to break on contact, accepted some blame.
"It probably could have gone either way," McCutchen said. "I probably shouldn't have broken."
But the call for the bunt came from the dugout, the domain of manager John Russell. And his explanation, one delivered with audible conviction, was that he felt the Pirates had a better chance to score McCutchen from third base with one out than from second with no outs.
"Oh, with Andrew McCutchen at third and one out, there are a lot of ways to score right there," Russell said. "We'll take advantage of any opportunity we can. Jose can bunt. If we get to a 2-0 count there, it's a different story. We probably let him swing the bat. But we need to get Andrew to third base. With his kind of speed, a chopper, a sacrifice fly, wild pitch -- anything's going to score him. With his kind of speed, it's important to get him to third base."
Most modern statistical studies -- though not all -- downplay or outright dismiss the value of a bunt, prioritizing the preservation of the out over the extra 90 feet. Russell's tendency all through his managerial tenure has been to favor the bunt, including a handful of occasions this season where a fast player had a leadoff double.
This particular move, beyond dispute, failed.
After Tabata's bunt, Walker popped up to short to end that 18-game hitting streak, and Garrett Jones, who earlier scorched two hits, grounded out to first.
Then, with Chan Ho Park on the mound for the bottom half, Ruben Tejada lined a one-out double to left, and Evans followed with an RBI single in the same direction. Tabata threw to the plate, but it was late and off line, and the Mets had the game's only run.
That left McDonald with nothing but pats on the back to show for those eight scoreless innings that extended his streak to 17, tied for the third-longest current streak in the majors. He held the Mets to five hits, struck out four, walked two, only once allowed multiple men on base and, all numbers aside, was in complete control.
"He did a great job," Russell said.
"He's come out every time and given us the opportunity to win ballgames," McCutchen said. "Pounding the zone, getting ahead, getting outs ... that's all you can ask."
In a season where the Pirates' starting pitching has mostly ranged from awful to abysmal, McDonald has been a ray of light: His ERA is 3.48 in eight starts since being acquired July 31, and he has had four starts of at least six innings with one or zero runs.
"Every game, your goal is to put up zeroes, give your team a chance to win," McDonald said. "Last time, these guys roughed me up, so I had to motivate myself, pound the strike zone, get ahead of these guys."
New York scored five runs in as many innings off McDonald in a 5-1 victory Aug. 21 at PNC Park.
The Pirates managed five hits and four walks in six innings off the Mets' promising rookie, Dillon Gee, but they stranded nine and, ultimately, stranded 10 while going 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position.
Walker's hitting streak ended after he went 0 for 3 with two walks. The only rookie in franchise history with a longer streak was Jimmy Williams, with 27 games in 1899. During the streak, Walker batted .364 -- 28 for 77 -- with five home runs, six doubles, two triples and 18 RBIs.
This was the Pirates' third extra-inning loss in the past four games, and the franchise's worst season in a half-century saw the record fall to 48-95, five losses shy of 100.