In a move that had to set a 2014 record for managerial audacity, Clint Hurdle last night brought Ernesto (The Arsonist) Frieri into a bases-loaded, one-out situation against the St. Louis Cardinals with the Pirates trailing by two runs in as important a game as a team might play in early July. This is the same Frieri who gave up the game-winning home run the night before and who has been pretty much consistently awful since joining the Pirates late last month.
Two pitches later, Frieri made Hurdle look like he knew something no one else did by retiring Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta. But, really, what was Hurdle thinking?
For starters, not only did the situation scream for anyone but Frieri, it specifically screamed for a left-handed pitcher. Adams, a lefty swinger, was batting .381 with a .962 OPS vs. right-handed pitching. Against left-handed pitching, those numbers were .203 and .607.
There’s almost no explaining such a strategy except for this: The Pirates have a history of it. They have never thought twice about sacrificing a game to find out what a player can do. They did it just this year with Wandy Rodriguez, giving him a start he had not come close to earning. They’ve done it in the past with Jose Contreras and Jose Ascanio.
In each case -- Rodriguez, Contreras and Ascanio -- the player was almost immediately removed from the active roster after a poor performance and never played for the Pirates again.
There’s no way of knowing if that would have been the fate of Frieri, if he had pitched poorly. That would seem unlikely since his salary is $3.8 million but still a possibility. The Pirates have been known to walk away from such contracts, but never easily.
Hurdle has two left-handers in his bullpen, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. But he never uses either so early in the game. Watson, of course, was out of the question in the fourth inning because of his value later in the game. Wilson is not a good candidate to bring into a bases-loaded situation because of his history of control problems.
Jared Hughes, who pitched two innings Tuesday, might not have been available. But Jeanmar Gomez was and would have appeared to be an infinitely better option than Frieri. But Frieri came through and saved Hurdle some embarrassing questions. Still, the strategy was impossible to understand in the context of wanting to win an important game against a key division rival.
The peculiar decision had little impact on the outcome of the game, which was won by St. Louis, 5-2. But it had to have lots of people scratching their heads, including those in the Pirates clubhouse.
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The loss was the third straight by the Pirates, all to the Cardinals. The fourth game of the series tonight is not a must-win for the Pirates, but something close to that. With the loss, they fell 2 1/2 games behind the second-place Cardinals and two behind third-place Cincinnati.
The Pirates remain 4 1/2 games out of first place because Milwaukee also lost. The Brewers have lost four in a row and eight of their last nine.
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Brandon Cumpton was in the familiar role of an emergency starter, but he did not meet with the same success as he had earlier, when thrust into such situations. In a start for Gerrit Cole, who was placed on the disabled list, Cumpton was unimpressive and ineffective. In 3 1/3 innings, he gave up four runs on nine hits and three walks. He threw 79 pitches.
It might not seem like much of a negative because the Pirates are awash in starters with Francisco Liriano coming off the disabled list and Cole expected back after the All-Star Game. But Cumpton's showing lowered his value somewhat in a possible deadline deal. He has a record as a starter that could place him in the rotation of many teams. But he didn’t help himself or his trade value with the way he pitched last night.
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Wilson had another bad outing. After retiring the first two batters in the seventh, he gave up a home run to Kolten Wong and a triple to Peter Bourjos before getting the final out. The inning pushed his ERA to 5.02. Just as importantly, his BB/9 (walks per nine innings) is an unacceptable 4.77. His K/B is 1.94, which puts him about 150th in the National League.
Andy Oliver, a 26-year-old left-hander, is closing for Indianapolis and doing well at it, although he, too, has control problems. Oliver might be worth a look and Wilson might benefit from some time in Class AAA.
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Cherry-picking stats has become an art form with some in the comment section, so let me have a go at it.
From June 18 through Tuesday, this was Josh Harrison’s batting line: .243/.284/.343 -- .627. In 70 at bats, he had one homer and seven RBIs.
For the same time frame, this is the batting line of Pedro Alvarez: .278/.361/.500 -- .861. In 54 at bats, he had three homers and nine RBIs.
This is presented not as evidence that Alvarez is a better option at third base than Harrison, but to suggest the situation is not as open and shut in favor of Harrison as some would think.