This Pittsburgh Pirates team battles, and never gives up. Even when things look like they’re starting to turn for the worse, they’ve been able to prevail and beat the odds. It proved to be true on Sunday afternoon, in perhaps the wildest first four innings played this 2012 season.
“We’re pretty good,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re not perfect. We’ll confuse you. We’ll probably anger you from time to time, but we’re going to let it all hang out and play hard. They found a way to dig one out of the dirt today. Just scratched and clawed back.”
The defense let down the club and starter Erik Bedard from the get-go. San Diego was able to put a four spot up on the board before the Pirates were even able to see a pitch. Pittsburgh had lost their third straight on Saturday, and four of their last five in a lot of sideways games that ended in shock and disappointment. But one big swing of the bat was in part of the biggest rally the Bucs had put together since the 2010 season.
On the second pitch of the game, Chris Denorfia took Bedard deep into bullpen. Their recent first inning struggles have allowed the opposing team to score at least one run in the first inning in each of the last six games and have homered in four straight.
Bedard was able to whiff Chase Headley swinging, but his control struggled as he plunked Carlos Quentin with a pitch. His next batter laced a one-out RBI single to left field to drive in the second run of the frame.
That’s when the defense blunders further extended the inning. Clint Barmes sailed a possible double play ball between second and third base for a three base error allowing two runs to score. Known for his impressive glove, the error, which was the first of two, snapped Barmes 34 straight game streak.
“I did the best I could with what happened,” Bedard said. “Stuff like that’s going to happen. You’ve just got to bear down and pick them up just like they pick you up when you give up runs…Early on I really wasn’t throwing strikes with my fastball and later on I was throwing a lot of strikes with my curveball. That really helped me out to finish the game.”
Defense blunders hurt Bedard again in the next inning. After giving up a double into the center field, the runner scored after the club failed to cover home plate. Headley hit a grounder up the first base line and Michael McKenry made a great throw from his knees to first, but with no one at home plate, the runner came home and scored.
“Bedard [kept] his calm and pitched through some challenging situations that we were a part of,” Hurdle said. “[He] found his curveball late and just kept hammering that thing, and that got him through the fifth, and we were able to turn it over to the bullpen.”
Things quickly changed for the Pirates — and they needed it. 14 men came to the plate in which they scored nine runs. After losing three straight and four of their last five games prior, the team needed that confidence booster to get them back on the right track.
“Especially the way the defense was the first few innings,” Barmes said. “This is me included obviously, I played a little tight out there and it was one of those things where we just got to relax a little bit and continue to do what we’ve been doing. This is definitely what this team needed and its nice to see some guys all the way through the lineup swing the bat.”
After battling on defense with all the sloppy plays, one big swing of the bat helped pick everyone’s heads back up.
The inning started with a walk from Garrett Jones, and Gaby Sanchez reached first on an error by the Padres third baseman. Pedro Alvarez singled to load the bases, and the club forced in a run after Michael McKenry drew a walk.
The swing of the bat was the biggest one that Clint Barmes has had this season. He stepped to the plate hoping to drive in a run and to keep the momentum going, but he didn’t expect to be a part of something so special. Barmes has struggled at the plate for the majority of the season putting up just a .215 clip in his worse season production-wise.
“I was just trying to put the barrel on the ball and do something to at least get one run in or keep it going,” Barmes said.
“At that point, as soon as I hit it, I started seeing it hook and it was one of those where I was hoping it would stay fair.”
It was at that moment that Barmes launched a 2-2 pitch from the Padres’ Ross Ohlendorf for his first grand slam.
“His biggest swing of the season with the bat,” Hurdle said. “It was a very big swing for a team that battled the fourth inning. We readjusted a lot of attitudes in the ballpark today. Good to see.”
“I’d say yeah, by far,” Barmes said on whether it was his biggest swing this season. “It was the first time I’ve done that in my career. It happened at a perfect time. It was a big swing for us. We definitely needed to get something going. That was pretty exciting.”
The offense didn’t stop there. Andrew McCutchen drove in a pair of runs with a double up the middle. Neil Walker, and Bedard scored. Bedard was almost run over at the plate from Walker who was running behind him.
“I don’t really have an extra gear,” Bedard said. “I didn’t know he was behind me until he grabbed me at the plate. I asked him if he was going to pass me.”
Garrett Jones was next, his second at-bat of the inning, which was a triple to the notch to drive in the eighth run of the inning. After Alvarez flew out to left for the second out, McKenry picked up a single to drive in the final run of the inning.
It was the club’s first nine run inning since pounding out nine runs on July 20, 2010 vs. Brewers at PNC Park.
“That’s about as good as it gets,” Hurdle said. “When you throw your kids the key to the car and tell them to take you for a ride, sometimes you really don’t know where you’re going to end up. It seemed like we were in the ditch for a couple days. That got about as ugly as you wanted it to get through the top of the fourth.”
“We needed a good feeling. You show up and play, and when things don’t go your way for four straight games and you’re down runs before you even hit, that’s the hard part of the game. But I think the one part about this club is we’ll dance with the hard part of the game. I think we still wrestle with it often, when usually isn’t good. You fight it, you try and do too much. We need to just dance with it.”
“The way we’ve gone the last three games with Wandy [Rodriguez's] game being turned around with a couple swings, the first game of the series, then last night — It’s like almost getting slapped by your girlfriend in front of your mother. It gets your attention, and it takes you to a place where you really don’t want to be, but you’ve got to find your way out. We were fortunate enough to find our way out today.”
Caught in the midst of the exciting nine run frame was the huge game from Neil Walker. The second baseman went 5-for-5 with a double, home run and a walk with a pair of RBI’s. It marked his career-high 14th long ball of the season and his second five hit game this season.
Walker entered game action hitting .340 over his last 39 games and his 67 RBI lead the National League amongst second baseman and his 14 long balls are tied for the most.
“He’s really hitting good right now,” Hurdle said. “He’s a ball striker. He works very hard at it, offensively as hard as he works on his defensive game. For as challenging the first part of the season was, he’s picked up a lot of offensive traction the last two month. The last six weeks, he’s probably swinging the bat offensively as well as any middle infielder in the game.”
Communication Key When Managing the Bullpen
Managing the bullpen can be one of the toughest parts of the job as skipper. Hurdle said that the building relationships with the seven men in the ‘pen is important. Not only to establish communication and keep their heads in a good place mentally, but to also know the balance of when they need a day off.
“You’ve got seven working men out there that all have individual responsibility from day-to-day that can change,” Hurdle said. “They are going to always want to represent the bullpen and take the ball. You’ve got to develop relationships that are transparent and trusting, because you need accurate information. Getting to know their body language from time to time, you can get some reads on them and through the communication with them.”
“You establish communication, so the times you’re going up to them, ‘Here he comes again, he’s going to ask me how I feel.’ That’s the only time you spend with them. You’re up or your down. If it’s all mechanical, your relationship becomes mechanical. Or when it’s all technical, the relationship becomes all technical. It’s just part of managing people, and developing that relationship, each one’s individual, each one has it’s importance. They all matter out there.”
Hurdle took that challenge on recently after Jason Grilli was down for several days in the pen after struggling on the mound — allowing four runs without getting an out — and saw his fastball velocity take a dip.
“It’s getting a read on how much work can you believe that they can handle and stay effective because they’ll all take on more,” Hurdle said. “Very rarely a guy will tell you that [he needs a day]. It’s hard for them to get to that point in time in their career where they’ll say they need a day. Usually it’s an older guy, a veteran guy who knows he needs a day.”
“That has been one of the most challenging parts every year, constructing that bullpen then going through the season with the different guys that might be coming and going, whether it be injury, whether it be lack of performance, however it works. But to know and make sure they understand they all have significant value.”
Hughes Stay in Triple-A Likely to be Short
The Pirates demoted Jared Hughes to Triple-A Indianapolis on Sunday morning in order to activate Juan Cruz off the disabled list. The move, however, was due to numbers not performance, Hughes can reap the benefits of the time off.
Hughes broke camp out of spring training for the first time in his professional career this year. The right-hander posted a 2.70 ERA over 56.2 innings with the Pirates. Hughes led rookie relievers in ERA for most of the season, but showed recent fatigue and struggles in relief. The 27-year-old tossed 2.1 scoreless innings of relief on Saturday night, but had allowed seven earned runs over his seven innings prior.
“I think I made the adjustments needed yesterday, and went out and pitched well,” Hughes said. “I made the adjustments to where I think I can just continue doing that for the next few weeks. Just go down there, stay positive, and earn another call up.”
Hurdle said that he talked about with Management that sending him to Triple-A to get some rest could help him down the stretch of the season.
“He continues to stress the point that he feels good, so we’re going to take that in hand,” Hurdle said. “Last year at this time he had thrown more innings because he was starting, but it is a different work load [in the Majors]. I was very encouraged by the way that he pitched last night after three outings where he was challenged.”
“As I told him, this really doesn’t have to do with performance. This has to do with numbers. We’ve got to get Cruz back involved to see where he can take this next opportunity. Right now, dependability is as important as anything. Obviously you want them to be effective. You don’t want dependable people that can’t get people out, but dependability late in August.”
The stay for Hughes is most likely a short one and Hurdle said it’s absolutely a possibility that he returns before September.
“We’re optimistic that his down time now can give him a breath of fresh air and he can get after it again like we saw early April and May and through early June,” Hurdle said. “We’ll continue to monitor. But there’s disappointment. It’s hard to send a man down that’s really been as big a part of the bullpen effectiveness we’ve had. He’s been a big part of that because he’s pitched multiple roles and he’s carried his workload.”
“If you want to stay, if you don’t like it, pitch better. That’s the old saying,” Hughes said. “I’ve got to go down, got to stay positive and pitch better. I think right now, it’s just the way it’s going to have to be with the numbers. I think there’s no sense of getting upset. I’ve got to stay positive. I’ve got to keep a positive attitude in this clubhouse so there continues to be wining going on. Just got to go down there do my work and come back.”