Let's start with the obvious: Why did the Pirates --in the person of either ejected Clint Hurdle, calling the shots from the clubhouse, or acting manager Jeff Bannister -- remove starter Francisco Liriano, pitching a gem, in favor of closer Mark Melancon, when just three night earlier the almost identical strategy failed spectacularly.
And, as it did then, it cost the Pirates a crucial win Friday night, this time to the Cincinnati Reds, who scored three in the ninth to tie the game and won it in the 10th on a Joey Votto home run, 6-5.
The circumstances were somewhat different from Wednesday when San Diego rallied to beat the Pirates, but the difference suggested that Liriano should have been allowed to finish. Unlike Charlie Morton, who was lifted after eight innings while pitching a three-hitter, Liriano is not coming off Tommy John surgery. And unlike Morton, Liriano was not close to exceeding his highest pitch count of the season. He could have comfortably pitched the ninth without raising any red flags.
Which does not make the move as ill-conceived as many will suggest.
If Jordy Mercer did not make a throwing error on a two-out grounder that would have ended the game, we'd not be holding this discussion.
Melancon did his job. He struck out Votto, gave up a single to Ryan Ludwick and got Jay Bruce on a ground out. Todd Frazier's bouncer to Mercer should have ended the game. But Mercer threw it away, allowing Ludwick, who had advanced to second on Bruce's ground out, to score.
Melancon gave up a bloop single to Zack Cozart to keep the inning alive. Then came the crucial play: A bouncer off the glove of Pedro Alvarez, which appeared to be difficult but playable, scored Frazier and Billy Hamilton, who had run for Cozart and stolen second base. With Alvarez moving to his left, the ball deflected toward shortstop, but Mercer, moving to his right to make a possible play on the batted ball, was in no position to recover and possibly throw out Hamilton at home.
Votto homered off Kyle Farnsworth in the 10th and the Pirates -- Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Gaby Sanchez -- went down in order against Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman.
So what does it all mean? Nothing if the Pirates can come back and win Saturday night. But plenty if they do not.
They are tied with the Reds for second place, trailing the St. Louis Cardinals. The series continues tonight with A.J. Burnett facing Homer Bailey.
Another sellout crowd came to PNC Park expecting a party and that's what it had for 8 1/2 innings, beginning in the bottom of the first when Jose Tabata and Walker homered off Mat Latos. The Pirates increased that 2-1 lead to 4-1 in the fourth and made a 4-2 game 5-2 in the seventh. A good time was being had by all.
And then came the ninth.
All three runs against Melancon were unearned and he did not pitch badly. But this is the third time in the past six games he has allowed runs. It's kind of late in the season to be making a change in the closer's role. Not that there are a lot of options. Jason Grilli does not appear ready to make the return to the role he handled so superbly for the first half of the season. Tony Watson has been excellent but has no closing experience and a pennant race is not the best time to get training.
It's a major issue for the Pirates and Melancon can solve it by returning to his once outstanding form. If he can not, it becomes an exceedingly serious issue.
Bannister brought Farnsworth in to pitch the 10th and it's hard to second-guess the move. In six previous appearance since joining the Pirates earlier this month, Farnsworth had pitched six innings and allowed on runs, two hits and one walk while striking out seven. He looked like a superb addition to the bullpen.
But Farnsworth had a 5.76 ERA in 30 games with Tampa Bay earlier in the season and a 4.05 ERA in six games with Indianapolis.
The Cardinals beat Milwaukee in 10 innings, 7-6, after allowing the Brewers to score twice in the ninth to tie the game. The win gives them a two-game lead over the Pirates and Reds. There's plenty of time left to catch St. Louis, but, for now, the Pirates need be much more concerned with the Reds and holding on to second place.