Gene Collier: Clutch Cutch delivers twice

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CINCINNATI - In a series that began with the Pirates absorbing painful lessons in multiple subjects, none was so instructive perhaps as the re-learned truth that there exists on this earth no bullpen weapon the equal of Aroldis Chapman.

He's the Red Death.

Not so Jonathan Broxton. Not quite.

With Chapman resting after having pitched in four consecutive games, Andrew McCutchen turned Broxton's fastball around at the start of the ninth inning Saturday and sent it soaring over the center-field fence. The MVP's 16th homer extended a game that was a virtual replay of the one a night earlier, if longer and curiouser and curioser. When it ended after four hours and six minutes and 11 intense innings, the Reds felt as emotionally battered as the Pirates had the night before.

They were the victims of too much clutch Cutch.

McCutchen launched his second homer in three innings, the first to tie it and the second to win it, tightening the National League Central Division race just when you thought it was tight as could be.

"Just hit the ball hard, get a good pitch to hit," McCutchen said of his approach. "Broxton threw me a kind of get-me-over slider. Hoover threw me a little slider right down the middle and I was ready to hit it."

Russell Martin sent it on to the 11th with a gorgeous tag at the plate on Cincinnati's Ramon Santiago, who was arriving simultaneously with Gregory Polanco's screaming short-hop throw from right on what looked like a game-ending single by Jay Bruce.

"You have to think about that throw from Polanco because that huge throw was a game-changer for us," McCutchen said. "He's a guy you've got to give a lot of credit to."

That the Pirates evened this series just when you thought they might be mentally dead is an obvious credit to the baddest Reds killer in the game. Those were McCutchen's 19th and 20th career homers against the Reds, more than anyone since McCutchen made it to the big leagues.

But on the re-jiggered scorecard of a devolving one-run game Friday night at Great American Ball Park, the Pirates had Jordy Mercer, Travis Snider and Polanco scheduled to confront Chapman in the ninth, all of them about to experience the worst of the occupational hazards attendant to an existing Cincinnati lead in the final act.

Hurdle insisted before the game Saturday that it was not what Chapman did to Mercer that prompted him to keep left-handed hitters Snider and Polanco in the dugout, but in the Mercer at-bat it was clear that Chapman was dealing in materials of unusual destruction, even for him.

Ninety-nine mph came the first pitch, 100 the next, and for the third, Chapman snapped off the kind of slider at 87 that should require an exterminator's license. A 100-mph fastball and a slider like Chapman's are extremely problematic pitches taken separately. In any kind of creative sequence they make hitting essentially impossible.

That Mercer survived through seven pitches was a credit to his professionalism, but when he whiffed on a fastball travelling at 101, Hurdle set about the process of taking the Pirates from hopeless to unconditional surrender, first pinch-hitting Michael Martinez for Snider, then sending up Matt Hague instead of Polanco.

"Just to hit right-handers against the left-hander," Hurdle said when it was brought up again 17 hours later. "Number one, Polanco's not swinging the bat really well right now, at least from my eye and I thought it would be a very challenging matchup at that point in time. Snider, for me, there are some [favorable] numbers against left-handers but that [Chapman] matchup in particular, for me, just doesn't bode well."

That is all 100 percent correct. What is incorrect is the presumption that Martinez and Hague have a better shot. Snider's limitations need no repetition, but he's had almost 1,500 big-league at-bats and once a month or so he hits a homer. He's hitting .364 (4 for 11) against left-handed pitching. Martinez had all of 6 plate appearances in 2014 when Hurdle plugged him in for Snider. He had 40 in 2013 and is a career .184 hitter. As for Hague, he had one plate appearance in the big leagues when he went up to look at Chapman and sat down three pitches later.

Polanco watched that from the safety of the dugout, wondering perhaps why a club that is so enamored by him won't let him play in the ninth inning of a one-run game.

"There's no upside for me," Hurdle said. "Not the way he's swinging. I just didn't think it was a fair matchup. As a manager, you look for opportunities to put your people in places to have some success. I didn't feel that was the case [Friday] night. I've hit him off a couple left-handers, but this would be an unusual left-hander."

That, too, is established law, but what happens all the time in this game is that guys who aren't swinging very well suddenly start swinging well, and maybe an unusual talent such as Polanco suddenly runs the bat head into a 100-mph missile and sends it toward the Ohio River, and the score is tied.

Those are the kind of matchups that pennant races are supposed to be about. To play the abstract percentages in favor of Martinez and Hague is the classical example of metrics gone mad.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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