One of the things that I hate the most about April baseball is this sentence: "I know it's early, but …" followed by a complaint about whatever pre-season concern they had. The Pirates offense has looked terrible in three games against the Cubs this week and it's been a little depressing to see, but they were also three games played in a freezing cold Pittsburgh April. It sucks, but it's not worth drawing conclusions about anybody from these three games.
Of course, that includes the pitching staff. The good news is that there was some good news on that front today. James McDonald, King of Not Getting Out of the Seventh Inning in 2011, Duke of the Second Half Collapse in 2012, and Earl of Not Getting Out of the Second Inning Against a Double-A Team in an Exhibition Start in 2013, was excellent this afternoon. He cruised through seven easy innings against the Cubs, throwing 61 strikes in his 97 pitches, holding the Cubs to two hits, two walks and a run. Every single cold weather small sample caveat that you use to dimiss the Pirates' pitiful offensive performance can be used to brush off the solid outings by AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald, of course, but I'll counter that by saying that every single good start by James McDonald is a little more evidence we can put on the "Good James McDonald" side of the list, and that makes me sleep a little easier at night.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, McDonald's good outing wasn't enough. Jared Hughes came on in the ninth inning and in a "hindsight's 20-20" moment, Clint Hurdle left him on the mound to face Nate Schierholtz. Hughes wasn't terrible against lefties in 2012, though they did have a .429 slugging percentage against him, and he was a pretty effective reliever until he ran out of gas late in the year. Still, there are an awful lot of questions about his early-season peripherals to go with his collapse questions and platoon splits, which means that as of now I view Hughes as a solid middle-relief guy but maybe not my first choice in a high leverage situation. By that point, of course, Mark Melancon had already been burned and Jason Grilli was being futilely saved for a save opportunity and so the Pirates don't really have a ton of options other than Hughes. All of that being said and with the open admission from me that this is purely back-seat managing with the benefit of hindsight and that I likely wouldn't have batted an eye or thought twice about it had Hughes gotten through the top of the ninth unscathed, it seems a little foolish to me that Hughes was allowed to pitch to a lefty with a runner on base in a one run game with the knowledge that Carlos Marmol was just waiting to hand the Pirates a run or two in the bottom of the ninth. What's the point of having two lefties in the bullpen if you can't bring Justin Wilson in in exactly that sort of situation?
In any case, maybe that would've been moot if the Pirates had gotten a few more hits. Andrew McCutchen reached on an error to start the seventh and stole second base, but with three chances Gaby Sanchez, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker couldn't drive him home. The ninth inning started with a Starling Marte single, a Russell Martin walk, an Andrew McCutchen single, and a Gaby Sanchez single, but Pedro Alvarez still somehow found himself in an 0-2 hole against Marmol before striking out and Neil Walker bounced into a double play. Really, one more hit in the seventh or ninth inning means that we're talking about this game much differently.
Of course, the Pirates didn't have that hit and so they go 1-2 against the Cubs despite three excellent pitching performances. With Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke in line to face the Dodgers this weekend, that's a little bit worrisome.