After Gerrit Cole allowed a single to Pete Kozma with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Greg Brown and John Wehner wondered aloud if it was odd that there was no one up in the Pirate bullpen. Cole had only thrown 85 pitches to that point and hadn’t encountered much resistance from the Cardinals since their two-run third inning until Kozma’s single, but the two of them asking the question make me remember how quickly Cole lost his edge in his first two starts back from the disabled list and wonder if Clint Hurdle was, indeed, making a mistake by not having someone immediately ready as the game entered crunch-time.
As it turned out, it was a huge mistake. Cole allowed a pinch-hit home run to Kolten Wong, then stayed on the mound because the bullpen had only then started to warm. He gave up a triple to Jon Jay in the very next at-bat, and John Axford was unable to escape the jam that that triple created. Essentially, the nine pitches that Cole was allowed to throw after the Kozma single turned a 4-2 Pirate win into a 5-4 Pirate loss. I’m not arguing he should’ve been pulled after the single, of course, just that it’s crazy that a starter who’s stamina has been suspect lately could be allowed to face enough batters to turn a 4-2 lead into a 5-4 loss in the seventh inning of the biggest game of the year. I also don’t want to turn this into too much of a “Blame Hurdle” post because the reality is that bringing John Axford or Jared Hughes or Justin Wilson into the game one hitter earlier could have just as easily resulted in a fifth Cardinal run: there were no good options at that point in the game, but Hurdle chose a different bad option than I would have. That’s it.
The larger problem is that this is a recurring and nightmarish theme if you are a Pirate fan in 2014. The Pirates have outscored the Pirates and Cardinals 141 to 118 this year, and yet they’re 13-20 against the two teams. In one-run games, the Pirates are 2-10 against their two main divisional foes. They haven’t won a one-run game against either club since May 10th. It is at least a little tempting to blame some of this on bad luck, but the real reason that it keeps happening is that the Pirates are (and have been) about 80% of a functional playoff baseball team. They are capable of hitting the ball, but they don’t have a starting rotation that can pitch deep into games, and they don’t have a bullpen that can bail their rotation out. This hurts against good teams, and the two good teams the Pirates play the most often are the Cardinals and Brewers.
I feel like a broken record now, but this is what’s maddening about the way this Pirate season has been handled since Day 1. The Pirates still might find a way to mash their way into the playoffs by beating the Cubs, Phillies, Red Sox, Reds, and Braves a bunch in September, but they’re already almost certainly screwed in a playoff series because of their inability to hold themselves together in close and late situations via a dominant start or a lock-down bullpen. Even after Andrew McCutchen’s monstrous home run off of Kevin Siegrist to give the Pirates an insurance run in the top of the seventh, there was a “dead man walking” kind of feel headed into the bottom of the inning because of the way these close divisional games have played out this year. The whole season has that vibe right now; the Pirates are stuffed to the gills with position player talent and they are, on the whole, playing pretty good baseball, but the pitching staff has put what looks from here like such a hard ceiling on this season that it sure feels like the difference between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs is a relatively insignificant one in 2014.
I won’t presume to know what happened in all of the Pirates’ trade talks in July and August of this year. What I will say that the fact that the rotation and bullpen remain un-upgraded makes watching the Pirates hold a slim lead late in games against good teams feel like watching the seconds before a car wreck in slow-motion, and it makes getting my hopes up for this team as a viable contender in September and/or October feel like a fool’s errand. I’m not willing to say that the Pirates won’t make the playoffs (that’s giving the Brewers a ton of credit that they don’t deserve at this point in the season), and I’ll even acknowledge that there’s enough talent between Cole, Francisco Liriano, Justin Wilson, and maybe John Axford, that this problem could be flipped on its ear by the season’s end. The problem is that I feel like I’ve already seen how this ends about ten times this year and I’m just done expecting to see something different.