Ron Cook: Pirates must fill holes at closer, cleanup spot

It was a big win. It took four hours, 16 minutes of tense baseball and patience through a 35-minute rain delay, but the Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds, 4-3, in 12 innings Thursday afternoon. It snapped a three-game losing streak, was just the Pirates' third win in 10 games against the Reds and allowed them to drop only one game in the National League Central Division standings instead of three after losing the first two games of the series. It also kept a wild-card playoff spot in sight, if not the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, who are eight games in front.

So why did it feel so bad?

There are a couple of reasons.

One, the Pirates have no closer. Jason Grilli gave up a killer home run in his second consecutive outing and was scored on for the third time in his past four. Nothing demoralizes a team more than when it plays hard for three or four hours and builds a lead only to see the closer blow it in three or four minutes. The Pirates lead the National League with 14 blown saves.

Two, the Pirates have no cleanup hitter to bat behind their dynamic one-two-three of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez have tried and largely failed. Pedro Alvarez -- the defending National League home run champion -- batted sixth Thursday and has been so bad at the plate and in the field that manager Clint Hurdle sent up Jordy Mercer to pinch-hit for him Thursday in the eighth inning.

Can we agree the Pirates have major issues?

Hurdle was quick to take Grilli's back after Grilli gave up a home run to the Reds' Todd Frazier Tuesday night, the deciding run in Cincinnati's 6-5 win. Hurdle wasn't nearly so quick to back Grilli Thursday after he gave up a tying line-drive home run to Devin Mesoraco, the fourth crushing homer he has allowed this season. Hurdle said he would consult with his coaches and general manager Neal Huntington before making a decision about his closer.

Hurdle has options. Mark Melancon has pitched well in the closer's role when Grilli has been hurt. Tony Watson has been the team's best relief pitcher this season. I'm a big believer in patience and I would send out Grilli one more time with a ninth-inning lead. But, after listening to Hurdle, I won't be surprised if Melancon or Watson gets the call this afternoon against the Cubs in Chicago.

"I expect him to be frustrated and angry," Pirates catcher Russell Martin said of Grilli. "He's still got a good fastball. He hit 93 today. He's got a good slider. I've got all the confidence in the world in him. He's going through a rough patch right now. The only way to get out of it is to keep going out there."

Alvarez's situation is more troubling. He was expected to be a cornerstone this season after hitting 36 home runs last year. He also was the Pirates' best hitter in the postseason.

Now Mercer is pinch-hitting for him?

It was the second time in three games that Hurdle batted for Alvarez against Reds left-hander Manny Parra. Tuesday night, he sent up Sanchez in the seventh to hit for him with runners on first and second and the Pirates trailing, 5-4. Sanchez is a .326 hitter against left-handers this season. The move made some sense even though Sanchez struck out. But hitting Mercer for Alvarez? In the eighth inning of game that the Pirates led, 3-2? With one out and no one on?

"We're trying to scratch out a run," Hurdle said.

The move had to have been made as much to get Alvarez out of the game because his defense has been so bad. He has 17 errors, nearly all throwing errors. The way Alvarez is going in the field, it's no wonder if Hurdle felt more comfortable moving Josh Harrison from second base to third. Of course, there was no defense for Mesoraco's home run.

Hurdle said he always considers a player when he makes a move, but that he has to consider what is best for the team more. He is big on communication and said he has "chatted" with Alvarez about the way he is using him. Still, it's fair to wonder what this is doing to Alvarez's confidence. I'm not sure batting for him Thursday in that situation with Mercer is good for his long-term stability.

"If you talk to a player and make it clear that you're trying to be an aide and help him through the rough times and get him back on track and you still lose him, you probably never had him in the first place," Hurdle said.

Hurdle said he was encouraged by the way Alvarez hit doubles to left-center field in each of the past two games. He also said he was pleased with how hard he's working on his defense.

"Pedro is an integral part of this team," Hurdle said. "We've got to keep him engaged. I continue to run back to the playoff run [last season when Alvarez hit .353 with three home runs and six RBIs in the division series against the St. Louis Cardinals]. ... You know it's in there."

Earlier this month, Hurdle benched the struggling Marte for four games in an attempt "to knock the noise out of his head." He said he hasn't reached that point with Alvarez, but, unless Alvarez picks it up over the weekend, it could happen next week when second baseman Neil Walker comes off the disabled list. Hurdle could platoon Harrison at third base with Alvarez, although that would be sacrificing the significant home-run potential that Alvarez has. I don't like that at all.

Speaking of Walker, the Pirates would be smart to try him in the cleanup spot. Could he possibly be worse than what they've been getting? Their No. 4 hitters went into Thursday with a .207 batting average and .655 OPS, ranking 14th in the 15-team National League.

Walker could provide a big lift for the lineup. Too bad it's hard to see him helping a struggling All-Star closer and a scuffling home-run champion. Right now, that's what the Pirates need more than anything.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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