There's nothing that can remedy a bad situation in baseball quite like good starting pitching. Except, that is, great starting pitching.
That's what the Pirates got from Gerrit Cole last night.
The Pirates were a team in desperate need of a pick-me-up and there was Cole, the rookie, to do what the veterans on the pitching staff could not do. In the biggest stage of his brief MLB career, Cole came through with his best performance.
In seven innings, he held the Texas Rangers to no runs and three hits while walking two and striking out a career-high nine.
The performance enabled the Pirates to end a four-game losing streak with a 1-0 win that put some light back in their season, which had turned ugly in the past month.
The Pirates got the only run they needed in the seventh, when with two outs, Marlon Byrd doubled and scored on a double by Pedro Alvarez. Tony Watson pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Mark Melancon, after allowing a two-out single in the ninth, earned the save.
The win moved the Pirates to within one game of first-place St. Louis, which was idle, and put one game between them and the Cincinnati Reds, who lost last night.
In just about everything you'll read about this game, there will be praise for Cole, the bullpen, Alvarez and Byrd. It's unlikely anyone will mention manager Clint Hurdle. After all, what did he do?
But when the Pirates lose, Hurdle often takes the brunt of the criticism, although, as in victory, he doesn't have an impact on the outcome that anywhere approaches that of the players.
Why are coaches/managers always thrown under the bus when a team loses, yet rarely given credit in victory?
When the Pirates were the darlings of Pittsburgh and being appreciated around the country as they were compiling the best record in MLB and had a four-game lead in the NL Central, there rarely was much credit given to Hurdle. There was praise all around for the players making the biggest contributions -- Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, to name a few. Pitching coach Ray Searage received more praise than Hurdle.
But once the team started losing with too much regularity -- beginning in early August -- almost everyone was pointing the finger of blame at the manager.
The deterioration in the starting pitching, perhaps the greatest cause for the team's decline, has little to do with Hurdle. The mysterious in-and-out performances of Francisco Liriano do not rest with Hurdle. Nor do the sudden inconsistency of A.J. Burnett or the stinker Charlie Morton threw Sunday at St. Louis.
Hurdle has made some strategical gaffes -- as do all managers -- but they have played a minscule role in the team's declline. The Pirates are not slumping because of strategy, they are slumping because of performance. It might be successfully argued that Hurdle has something to do with performance, but if he does it is a small part. Performance rests mainly with the players, not the manager.
If the pitcher were as good in the second half as they were in the first, the Pirates would be leading the NL Central.
Before the All-Star Game the Pirates were first in the National League in ERA (3.07), second in WHIP (1.18) and first in BAA (.225). Since the All-Star Game there are sixth in ERA (3.78), 11th in WHIP (1.35) and 13th in BAA (.263).
How is Hurdle responsible for the batting-average against going from .225 to .263?
Some would have Hurdle racing up and down the dugout during the game exhorting his men on to greater deeds? That's not his job. There's a lot of strategy taking place in a baseball game and the wise manager is one who concentrates on that and not on in-game motivational technique.
Think of some of the best managers of this era or ones from the past: Danny Murtaugh, Walter Alston, Jim Leyland, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa. They sat in the dugout and concentrated on the game. They were doing their job.
If players making an average salary of close to $3 million need in-game motivation, they're in the wrong business.
The Pirates chances of success in the postseason are not bright based on their 12-17 record since going 26 games over .500 in early August.
If this slide continues, the blame does not belong with Hurdle and most certainly does not belong with general manager Neal Huntinton, who has done all that could be expected of him.
The blame, just as does the credit, rests squarely on the shoulders of the players.