The topline story is that Mark Melancon came into the game with a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth and served up four hits and two runs in the seven batters that he faced, and a 2-1 win turned into a 3-2 loss. This is particularly difficult to swallow, because the previous eight innings made this game look like it was going to be a real signature win for the Pirates. Charlie Morton turned in one of the best outings of his career, striking out nine and limiting the Padres to just one run on two hits in his eight innings of work. The Pirates only sent 18 batters to the plate in the first six innings, but in the seventh, Neil Walker reached first on a strikeout and Andrew McCutchen launched a home run into the right-center grandstand and PNC Park exploded. It just felt like a win that was supposed to happen, because that's how a lot of this season has gone.
And then, for only the third time this year, the Pirates blew a lead in the ninth inning. The Padres didn't hit anything hard off of Mark Melancon, but almost everything they hit found a hole. Marlon Byrd had a chance to throw pinch-runner Andrew Cashner out at the plate to end the game before the tying run scored, but his throw was just a bit up the first base line. These things happen (they happen more often to just about everyone else than the happen to the Pirates this year because Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have been so excellent), but it's particularly difficult to swallow given the time of year and the poetry of the win that was just one out away from the Pirates' grasp tonight.
And once you get past all that, you realize that the real story is that the Pirates just could not hit again tonight. Tyson Ross has made some nice starts this year, but he obliterated the Pirates for most of the game tonight. Really, McCutchen's home run was it. The Pirates' offense has been streaky before, but going completely cold during a home series against the Padres with the NL Central division title on the line is pretty much a worst-case scenario for them.
Really, that's what makes this loss hard to take. The Pirates are still not in danger of missing the playoffs, because they hold a six-game lead on the Nationals with ten games remaining. That's to say that if the Pirates win one game out of their final ten, the Nationals need to go 7-3 just to tie them. The problem is that they're now two games behind the Cardinals in the division, which means that if the Cardinals go 5-5, the Pirates need to go 7-3 just to tie them. It's not an impossibility for the PIrates to come back from this deficit, but I wouldn't like the odds even if the Pirates were pushing seven runs across the plate every night.
When Major League Baseball revamped its wild card system last year and announced that there would be two wild cards that would play a one-game play-in for the right to get into the division series, my immediate reaction was this: "It would be terrible for the Pirates to finally make the playoffs after so many years years, only to have it be in a contrived one-off." The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tonight while the offense flailed and Mark Melancon served up one soft single after another was the realization that that is probably where things are headed.