I want to say that I’m at a loss for words here, but that’s not entirely true. I have plenty of words to say about this game, it’s just difficult to find a place to begin unpacking everything that happened on this weird Friday the 13th game in Miami.
For pretty much the entirety of this game, it looked like a worthy sequel to Thursday night’s easy win over the Cubs. The Pirates got some big hits early, the Polanco/Marte/McCutchen Triumvirate was impressive, the rest of the offense around them chippped in, and Jeff Locke was really, really good. The Pirates got through eight innings more or less on cruise control; Marte hit a two-run homer in the first, Andrew McCutchen singled in a run in the third, Ike Davis had a two-run double in the fifth, and then he scored on a Jordy Mercer single later in the inning. Jeff Locke got into trouble in the second, but escaped with only one run on the board and gave up a homer to Giancarlo Stanton in the third, but other than that he cruised. In fact, after the second inning, only four Marlins reached base against Locke. Stanton homered in the third, singled in the sixth, and doubled in the eighth, and Adeiny Hechavarria reached on a bunt single in the seventh. That was it. In eight innings of work, Locke gave up two runs on seven hits, he struck out seven, and he didn’t walk anyone. He only needed 101 pitches.
Honestly, he looked good enough that I briefly considered that Hurdle would let him pitch the bottom of the ninth. I think he he’d still had a shutout, he would’ve been allowed to finish it. The reality, though, is that the Pirates are really strict with their pitch counts, that Locke was over 100 pitches, and there was no reason to strain him in the ninth with an easy 6-2 lead against a punchless Marlin lineup.
Well, there didn’t seem to be any reason for it.
I try to watch my language on the blog, but I don’t know how to describe the ninth inning other than to say that the Pirates shit the bed. Justin Wilson started the inning by walking Marcell Ozuna, striking out Garrett Jones, and walking Hechavarria. I’m not sure he was bad enough to warrant being pulled, but the second walk created a save situation, so Clint Hurdle brought Jason Grilli in. Grilli walked Jeff Mathis to load the bases, then got a fielder’s choice that score a run, then walked Rafael Furcal to load the bases again. He got ahead of Reed Johnson 0-2 but couldn’t finish him off, and Johnson singled in two runs to bring the Marlins to within six runs. Clint Hurdle then decided to use Grilli to intentionally walk Stanton (a controversial move to push the go ahead run to second, but one I’d generally endorse given the choice of Stanton vs. Casey McGehee), and brought Mark Melancon out to face McGehee. McGehee got ahead 0-2 on McGehee and then lost him with a walk to tie the game. He finally got out of the inning by striking Ozuna out.
Now, first things first: this goes on the relievers. Wilson threw five of his 15 pitches for strikes. Grilli threw 13 of his 27 pitches for strikes. Melancon never walks anyone, except suddenly sometimes he does in huge ninth inning situations when the Pirates really can’t afford a walk. Only five of his 11 pitches were strikes. I will say, though, that pulling Wilson with the game still 6-2 for the “save situation” feels like an iffy move to me. I don’t put a lot of stock into “closer mentalities” or that sort of thing, but neither Grilli nor Melancon comes into games in the middle of innings much anymore, and that is something that I do think is worth considering in these situations. Obviously that’s a bit of armchair quarterbacking, and obviously the lead was big enough that either pitcher should have been able to shake off the rust and get out of the inning. Still, I do wonder if Wilson wouldn’t have been able to get out of the jam on his own far quicker than the Grilli/Melancon duo did here.
After that inning, the game took on a bad feeling. Grilli threw a tantrum in the dugout after being removed from the game. Andrew McCutchen was openly sulking in the outfield after striking out in three straight at-bats after staring the game 2-for-2. After the ridiculous string of late losses to the Brewers in April and May, this just felt like a horrifying extension of the Pirates’ excellent bullpen’s weird habit of blowing leads in excruciating fashion more often than you’d probably expect.
In fact, the Pirates’ offense basically seemed to just give up. They struck out three times in the tenth. They went down on six pitches in the 11th and nine pitches in the 12th, despite striking out three times in the two innings. Jeanmar Gomez held things together on the other side of the field, though, putting down the first seven Marlins he faced before a one-out Casey McGehee double in the bottom of the 12th. He navigated that without much trouble, though, and that sent the game into the 13th inning.
And that’s where Gregory Polanco came in. After Clint Barmes singled and moved to second on a Gomez bunt, Polanco came up to face left-handed reliever Mike Dunne. Dunne fed Polanco a steady diet of sliders on the outside part of the plate, but for some reason, catcher Jeff Mathis decided to come towards the middle of the plate with the sixth pitch of the at-bat and Polanco just unloaded on the ball, sending a screaming frozen rope into the stands in right center field. Polanco bolted out of the box with such speed that he had to grab his batting helmet to keep it from flying off, he sprinted around first, and then gave a big fist pump before easing up in his trot. It felt like that home run sort of broke a spell; by the time he reached the dugout, the whole team was waiting for him for the dugout celebration. No ignoring the rookie or anything like that, just joy and relief.
That hit, of course, was Polanco’s fifth hit of the night. It’s impossible to say enough good things about his approach at the plate. A lot of pitchers have been working him on the outside part of the plate, and his first two singles went to left field. In the sixth inning, he flashed his hands around on an inside pitch and pulled a single to right, and in the eighth he sent a pitch back up the middle for his fourth hit. He struck out against side-winding Steve Cishek with the go-ahead run at second in the tenth, but I thought that he handled Cishek really well, and the called strike three was just barely above his shoe tops. In the 13th, Dunn left one of the earlier pitches of the at-bat on the inside part of the plate and Polanco jumped out of his shoes at it, swinging and missing. He didn’t miss the second time.
Obviously we’re working with a small sample size, but seeing him hit balls to all three fields in his first three games, and seeing the way he pounced on Dunn’s bad pitch in the 13th (I’m hesitant to call it a mistake pitch, because I do think Mathis set up close to where the pitch was delivered; I just don’t know why Mathis wanted the pitch there), it just looks like he’s a machine built for hitting baseballs.
With the way this ninth inning went, this game very well could have been the worst loss for the Pirates in a year that has quite a few ugly losses. Gregory Polanco (with a little help from Jeanmar Gomez) made it into something special. The Pirates are within one game of .500. They’re within two games of the Cardinals for the second wild card. They’re within 6 1/2 of the Brewers.