On July 28th after sweeping the Houston Astros on the road, the Pirates were sitting at a season-high 16 game over .500 and just two games behind the National League Central leading Cincinnati Reds. However, since then, the club has taken a nose dive.
After being defeated 3-1 to Milwaukee on Wednesday at PNC Park, the Pirates saw themselves drop to 74-74 on the season. Not since June 2nd had the Bucs been sitting at .500 (26-26).
“We haven’t played well,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s been a while. We had earned the position we earned before, we’ve earned this position as well. The season is 162 games for a reason.”
“We’ve talked about finishing from the start of spring training. We’ve got to finish. We’ve got to find ways to finish, to continue to work, continue to play, continue to trust and get something done on the field. Just as importantly in the batters box. We had gone 23 innings without scoring a run until we scored that run tonight. If you want more, you’ve got to do more. Everybody in there wants more. I want more. We’ve got to do more, to get more.”
The Pirates were only able to counter with one run off the Brewers arms. That lone run came off the bat of Andrew McCutchen, who launched his 29th home run of the season to left field in the bottom of the ninth inning. It snapped their 23 inning scoreless streak without plating a run. Not since the third inning on Monday’s loss to Chicago had the Pirates scored until McCutchen homered. Pittsburgh has combined for just one run on nine hits over the two games against Milwaukee this series.
“There’s more to get done,” Hurdle said. “We’ve got to find a way to jump start this offense.”
McPherson Effective in First Big League Start
Kyle McPherson admitted after the game on Wednesday that the nerves were definitely there. After falling behind 1-0 to his first batter of the game, McPherson quickly saw Norichika Aoki trot around the base paths after hanging his second pitch of the game.
“Adrenaline was definitely flowing through your blood,” McPherson recalled. “I was just trying to go out there and focus on down in the zone and get strike one, and go from there.”
McPherson was able to settle down, and retired his next two batters straight. Bad luck prolonged the inning for the right-hander. Aramis Ramirez hit a dribbler up the first base bag that McPherson fielded, but was unable to make the throw to the base for an infield single. Jonathan Lucroy hit a grounder to third, but Pedro Alvarez bobbled the ball for an error. But McPherson was able to get his first punchout to end the frame.
“I was just trying to work ahead of guys and be aggressive in the count,” McPherson said. “Early in the game, I was trying to establish the fastball and he put a good swing on it. That was that…It’s just turn the page. You’ve got to have a quick memory and get rid of that stuff immediately. Get rid of the bad and focus on what you do well and get right back after it.”
The first at-bat may not have panned out the way McPherson would have liked in his first big league start, but he was able to settle in after that at-bat and toss an efficient outing. McPherson attributed that to the changeup, which came into play after the first inning, as the reason for the success.
“Getting secondary pitches over in hitters counts tonight was big for me,” McPherson said. “I was glad to see that, especially not having to use the changeup as much coming out of the bullpen. It was good to see it was in the zone tonight.”
His next three innings, however, didn’t come without several jams.
After a giving up a leadoff single to center to start the second inning, the runner advanced to second base, but was caught attempting to swipe third. McPherson notched his second strikeout to end the inning.
The double-play turned out to be McPherson’s key to tossing up zeros in the next three. A one-out single was erased in the third with a twin kill. In the fourth, a leadoff walk and a single were wiped away after a fly out and a 5-3 double play to end the inning.
“They’re big,” McPherson said. “Anytime you can save pitches and limit damage with turning two is always big.”
The fifth, McPherson needed the bullpen to finish off the frame. Jean Segura led off the inning with a double off the center field wall. The Brewers’ shortstop advanced to third on a balk from the right-hander. The runner scored after Marco Estrada singled to left field for McPherson’s second earned run. After getting a fly out for the first out, Hurdle called upon Chris Resop from the bullpen. After giving up back-to-back singles to load the bases, for the third straight inning the club was able to turn an inning ending double play.
Ramirez hit a grounder to Resop, who threw home to Michael McKenry, who threw to first to end the frame. Overall, McPherson was charged with two runs on seven hits over 4.1 innings. He walked one and struck out two while throwing 71 pitches, 46 for strikes.
“Second pitch of the game, we’re down 1-0,” Hurdle said. “I thought he was very resilient. Ii thought he showed some mound presence and some poise. I thought he battled very well.”
“The fastball was up a little bit early. I thought he was able to settle down and spot his fastball. The changeup became a very good pitch for him tonight. He threw it in some offensive counts. He actually used his secondary stuff in some offensive counts in the middle of their lineup, which worked out for him. The curveball got better as the game went on, but he started spotting the fastball after the first inning. I thought he pitched effectively.”
Although it was McPherson’s first big league start, it was his eighth appearance of the season. McPherson allowed two runs over 11.2 frames with 11 strikeouts in relief since being promoted from Triple-A. Hurdle said that getting his feet wet in relief has helped him.
“Just the settling part of it,” Hurdle said before the game. “That he’s been on a big league mound, that he’s pitched in some big league games…I do believe a part of him that does want to be a starter, he’ll pitch wherever you want, but this is a [good] opportunity. I know he’s going to put every effort and focus into giving us the competitive start we need.”
The plans on if McPherson will remain in the rotation are unsure. Jeff Karstens pitched three innings in relief after McPherson. Karstens is working his way back from a hip flexor injury. McPherson said after the game he was unsure of whether he will be moved back into the bullpen, but was going to keep treating it as if he is in the rotation.
“They haven’t said anything really,” McPherson said. “I’m going to treat it as if I’m in the rotation. I’m going to take it day to day and stay on the rotation with my workouts and everything like that.”
Hurdle Managing Rookies in Midst Pennant Race
Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee pushed the Pirates further out of the National League Wild Card hunt — 4.0 back of St. Louis for the second spot, the furthest back they’ve been this season. While the Brewers have found a hot streak winning 22 of their past 28 games, the Pirates continue to struggle to get out of their funk, winning just eight of their past 28.
Despite being in the midst a pennant race, the Pirates have been using rookies in big games during the final stretch of the regular season. Whether it’s been in the starting lineup or inserted in the starting rotation to step up and contribute, is it still possible to play in the moment, but still take a look at the future? Manager Clint Hurdle has been trying to balance doing just that.
“It’s kind of who we are,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re going to have to continue to transition from time to time. And sometimes based on injury, when a guy like [Brock] Holt comes involved. You’ve got a guy like [Starling] Marte, who was here earlier. That’s part of who we are and our identity.”
“For some people, there was a time when Marte should have been up here way before this. And I think through some of the play you see why we tried to be specific with our time to make sure he was ready to compete. He’s been able to find his way. There’s been some challenges. Holt gave us an instant shot in the arm, the leadoff spot, he’s handled himself very well. As well as some of the pitching. You [got] to see Kyle [Wednesday] night. You’ve seen [Jeff] Locke compete off the mound. That’s just a balance that I think we have to be aware of, and we have to be willing to take some shots from time to time.”
Double Plays Tale Tell Sign on Base Stealers
The Pirates allowed the Brewers to swipe seven bases in the 6-0 shutout on Tuesday night. Milwaukee, who lead the National League in stolen bases, only took one in Wednesday’s game. Last night’s notebook talked about the base stealing overall this season, but Manager Clint Hurdle said the issue behind why they haven’t been successful at it recently as they did in the beginning of the season has a lot to do with their double plays turned.
Although there aren’t many games left in the season, Hurdle said it’s possible to get it under better control before the season ends.
“Were running out of time,” Hurdle said. “It’s been all season long that we’ve worked on this and talked about this to the point where it does get challenging. The catcher and the pitchers understand it. We know when we get taken advantage of.”
“If you look at the biggest tell tale signs is the number of double plays that we’ve turned this year. The number is down dramatically because they’re not on first as long. And that puts the emphasis on the pitcher when the guy does get on first. We’ve got to get a good pitch down in the zone immediately to get that ball on the ground to try and give us a chance. Earlier in the season, we were doing it much better than we are now.”