ATLANTA -- The Braves and Pirates produced a classic as the two teams battled into the 19th inning Tuesday night (and Wednesday morning) before a crowd of 22,036 at Turner Field.
But in the end, few people will likely remember all of the great defensive plays and clutch pitches both teams made because of the controversial way it ended and the fact that, by most accounts -- and backed by video evidence -- home plate umpire Jerry Meals blew the most important call he had to make.
"The game deserved better," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle shortly after the Pirates, 4-3, 19-inning loss to the Braves. "You'd like to see the game finished by the players, win or lose, and for it to end that way, is as disappointing as it gets in a game
"You had every player in the game and for it to end that way ... the game deserves better than that. The game tonight deserved way better than that."
Game: Pirates vs. Braves, 7:10 p.m., Turner Field.
TV, radio: Root Sports; WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-10, 3.26 ERA) vs. RHP Jair Jurrjens (12-3, 2.44 ERA).
Key matchup: Maholm vs. Turner Field. The road has not been kind to Maholm. He is 1-5 with a 4.45 ERA in nine road starts this season.
Of note: : Fifty of the Pirates first 100 games were decided by two runs or less. They were 28-22 in those games.
The call in question came in the bottom of the 19th inning with the score tied 3-3. The Braves had runners on second and third with one out and relief pitcher Scott Proctor at the plate facing Pirates reliever Daniel McCutchen.
Proctor hit a groundball to third which was fielded cleanly by Pedro Alvarez, who then threw home to Pirates catcher Mike McKenry for what appeared to be a relatively easy out as it appeared he tagged Braves runner Julio Lugo before he slid across the base.
But Meals didn't see it that way and called Lugo safe, which meant the Braves had won the game
Hurdle then charged out of the dugout and argued vehemently with Meals about the call, while McKenry also pleaded his case, but the call was made and the game was over.
Meals, who talked to a pool reporter after the game, explained his call by saying from his vantage point it didn't look like McKenry had tagged him out.
"I saw the tag, but he looked like he 'Oled' him [like a bullfighter waving a cape at a bull] and I called him safe for that," Meals said. "I looked at the replays and it appeared he might have got him on the shin area. I'm guessing he might have got him, but when I was out there when it happened, I didn't see a tag.
"I just saw the glove sweep up. I didn't see the glove hit his leg."
Hurdle and McKenry, of course, didn't see it the same way -- both live and when they watched it again on tape in the clubhouse after the game.
"[Meals] said [McKenry] never tagged him," Hurdle said. "I saw him tag him three feet in front of the plate and that's the way it looked when I went back in there and looked at it again -- he tagged him three feet in front of the plate."
McKenry added, "it stinks that after 19 innings it comes down to something like that. I was actually kind of baffled [by the call], I didn't even know what to do or what to say. Yes, I tagged him but like I said, you just have to control what you can control.
"We're in a fight right now for our division and every win counts and every loss counts, so it is just tough right now."
On the other side, however, Lugo said that Meals made the right call.
"I'm being honest," Lugo said, "I didn't feel him tag me."
Interestingly enough, the fact that any member of the Braves had anything nice to say about Meals represented a huge shift in their attitude toward him as they spent most of the night visibly upset about the way he was calling balls and strikes.
In fact, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez wasn't even around to see the game-winning play because he, along with outfielder Nate McLouth, were thrown out of the game by Meals for arguing with him after McLouth struck out in the ninth inning.
McLouth also had some words with Meals after he struck out in the sixth inning.
And Braves reliever Cristhian Martinez had to take a walk around the mound and be calmed down by some of his infielders in the 14th inning when he thought he threw a third strike to McKenry but Meals ruled it was a ball.
Meals call at the end of the game dominated the discussion after the game, overshadowing some brilliant performances by players on both teams as the game became a war of attrition and a battle of wills.
Consider, for instance, the performance of Daniel McCutchen (3-2), who took the loss but pitched 5 1/3 innings, threw 91 pitches and kept the Pirates in the game longer than anyone could have expected given how much of the bullpen had to be used.
That's especially true considering McCutchen is a reliever and had only pitched more than two innings twice this year. He pitched more innings in this game than he did in his past seven appearances combined.
Hurdle called McCutchen "bad to the bone" for the way he pitched and said his performance was "an incredible effort, way beyond the call of duty."
The Pirates couldn't take advantage of McCutchen's excellent outing mostly because he was matched pitch for pitch by Martinez, who threw six shutout innings and got the Braves from the 11th to the 17th inning before giving way to Proctor (2-3), who got the win.
But it wasn't just McCutchen and Martinez who got the job done as the two bullpens combined to throw 26 1/3 innings without giving up a run before the final play. In fact, the score was tied at 3-3 after the third inning and neither team scored again until Lugo's slide into home in the 19th.
It was the longest game the Pirates have been involved in (in terms of innings) since July 6th, 1980 when they beat the Cubs, 5-4, in 20 innings and it is the longest road game they've played since April 20th, 1986 when they beat Chicago at Wrigley Field, 10-8, in 17 innings.
The game, which was the longest in Turner Field history (in terms of both innings played and time) lasted 6 hours and 39 minutes making it also the longest game time-wise in Pittsburgh franchise history, eclipsing the 6 hours and 12 minutes it took the Pirates to outlast San Diego, 4-3, in 19 innings on Aug. 25th, 1979.
The loss dropped the Pirates (53-48) into third place place in the National League Central, one game behind St. Louis (55-48), who beat the Astros, 3-1, and one-half game behind Milwaukee (55-49), who beat the Cubs, 3-2.
Atlanta (60-44), on the other hand, snapped a three-game losing streak.
Xavier Paul got the Pirates offense started in the top of the first inning when he singled, stole second and advanced to third on a ground out by Garrett Jones to give the Pirates a runner on third with one out. Neil Walker then hit a triple off the right-field wall and scored on a single by Pedro Alvarez to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
McKenry then gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead with a solo home run the next inning and the team looked to be on its way to a third consecutive win.
But that would be the last time they scored and the Braves scored three runs on four hits in the bottom of the third off starter Jeff Karstens to tie the game.
Both teams had plenty of opportunities to score after that point but each time someone appeared to be ready to take a lead, the other team would either make a clutch pitch or great defensive play to get out of a jam and preserve the tie.
Hurdle said everything that went on in the game made it a classic, well, everything, that is, except for the way that it ended.
"Obviously we had our shots and they had their shots and that's why the game went the length it went," Hurdle said. "I couldn't be prouder of our guys and I'm sure that [the Braves coaches] couldn't be prouder of their guys. The disappointing part is for the game to finish the way it finished ... by a wrong call."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org .