For all of the good things that Neal Huntington and his front office have done for this Pirate franchise in the past few years, it’s easy to wonder if maybe they aren’t a victim of their own hubris when it comes to the Pirate bullpen in 2014. The Pirates have had plenty of luck finding relievers in all kinds of places over the past couple of years, but in the past 12 months they’ve traded away Victor Black, Bryan Morris, and Jason Grilli, and are left with a situation in their own bullpen in which any of the three players traded away would be the Pirates’ third-best reliever right now. None of those trades looked awful at the time and so this is partially hindsight, but reality is reality.
The Pirates fell victim to their short bullpen tonight. They ran out to a 4-1 lead against Buck Farmer, but Vance Worley and some suspect defense flipped that score into a 5-4 Tiger lead by the time there was one out in the bottom of the sixth, which necessitated a Jared Hughes appearance. Hughes, for whatever reason, was only allowed to throw four pitches tonight (I suspect that it had to do with his two-inning outing on Monday, and for all of the things that I don’t mind questioning, I don’t really have a problem with the usage schedule that the club tries to keep their relievers fresh and healthy), which meant that Stolmy Pimentel came out to pitch the seventh. Pimentel got bombed (again hurt by some suspect defense, this time by Gregory Polanco in deep right center), and a winnable game slipped away.
I know that a lot of people probably want to blame Hurdle for pulling Hughes so quickly, but really, I think the larger problem here is with the tools at hand. Given Hughes’ constant smoke-and-mirror act and Justin Wilson’s volatility, the Pirates are at risk for something like this to happen on most nights that their starters don’t pitch seven innings or on nights that the leave with a one or two run deficit. I don’t know that there’s much that can be done for this problem in August, but this game laid out pretty nicely how the pitching staff is the biggest obstacle for the Pirates during this playoff race.
It’s a shame, too, because in the early going it looked like the Pirate offense was going to help carry the day. Jordy Mercer and Travis Snider kept their recent hot streaks going with a triple (defense-aided) and a home run, respectively during the Pirates’ three-run fourth inning.
Of course, as far as losses go, a loss to an American League team after already earning a series split isn’t the end of the world and it shouldn’t necessarily be treated as such, bullpen issues notwithstanding. The Brewers lost, so the Pirates’ NL Central deficit remains at 1 1/2 game. The Cardinals and Giants did win, though, so the Pirates’ NL wild card lead is down to 1/2 game. As far as surviving the McCutchen and Walker injuries go, well, let’s hope that the Pirates are one day closer to both guys returning.