Pirates Can’t Find a Way to Win in Milwaukee; Pitchers Not Doing Themselves Favors

Last night the Pittsburgh Pirates were blown out in Milwaukee, thanks in large part to a lot of home runs by the Brewers. The obvious solution? Hit more home runs and beat them at their own game. Tonight the Pirates did just that. They combined for four home runs, which accounted for seven of their eight runs on the night. The only problem was Milwaukee hit three home runs, and combined for 12 runs on the evening.

The Pirates took an early lead in the first inning after a Starling Marte double eventually resulted in a run. Russell Martin followed Marte with a single, and Andrew McCutchen brought Marte in with another single. They probably should have had more than that, as you don’t usually expect one run when you begin the game with a double and two singles. Milwaukee came back big in the bottom of the second inning, scoring three runs.

The Pirates immediately battled back, as Gaby Sanchez hit a two run homer in the top of the third, tying the game at 3-3. Already it looked like a much different game than the night before. But then the Brewers reminded us that if you’re the Pirates, winning in Miller Park isn’t that easy. They added one run in the bottom of the third, and three more in the bottom of the fourth, taking a 7-3 lead.

Once again the Pirates battled back. On Monday the Brewers made an impact with back-to-back homers on two different occasions. This time it was the Pirates with back-to-back shots in the fifth inning from Russell Martin and Andrew McCutchen. The shot from Martin was his sixth of the year, and fifth since the beginning of last week. The shot from McCutchen was encouraging, as the Pirates’ star hasn’t been hitting anywhere near as well as he had been last year.

Starling Marte continued his #MartePartay in the sixth inning, hitting a three run homer with two outs to give the Pirates an 8-7 lead. The Pirates kept battling back to that point, setting them up to go with their big strength to close out the game: the bullpen.

The only problem was the bullpen didn’t come through. Vin Mazzaro came on in the sixth inning to relieve James McDonald. Mazzaro pitched to three batters, giving up a solo homer and two more hits before being removed for Bryan Morris. Morris got out of the inning, but gave up a solo homer of his own in the seventh inning to Yuniesky Betancourt, which is the most “Brewers take the lead from the Pirates” moment ever. The game got out of hand when Tony Watson came on in the bottom of the eighth and gave up three more runs, getting only one out. There was no comeback this time by the Pirates offense, and the Brewers went on to win 12-8.

James McDonald

James McDonald didn’t do himself any favors tonight. Photo by Mark Olson.

The Competitive Pitching Atmosphere

I talked yesterday about all of the pitchers who will be joining the team in the next two weeks, noting that the Pirates have so much depth that Charlie Morton might not have a rotation spot and Gerrit Cole might not be a guarantee to join the team this summer if he’s not developed 100 percent. Then I talked about all of the pitching depth in Indianapolis, which mostly consists of bullpen options, but also includes some additional starting depth.

The thing about all of that depth being held back is that it would only be held back if the guys in the majors are performing. That almost creates an extremely competitive pitching atmosphere where there’s no room for failure from the major league pitchers.

We’ve already seen some of that this year with Chris Leroux and Jonathan Sanchez. I feel that the Pirates moved on from them a lot quicker than they’ve moved on from guys in previous years. For that reason, guys who have been struggling on the major league roster can’t get too comfortable.

For example, James McDonald has seen his struggles this year. It didn’t help that he gave up seven runs on eight hits and five walks in five innings tonight. That’s especially true on a night where the Pirates finally had some offense against Milwaukee. If McDonald continues pitching like this, then it would probably be Charlie Morton going to the rotation, with McDonald going to the bullpen. The only starters who really have spots locked down are A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez.

Then there’s Mazzaro. Jose Contreras will be added to the roster on Friday, and someone is going to have to go. That could be Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez, or Mazzaro. The last two outings from Mazzaro definitely aren’t making a strong case for him sticking around on the roster.

That’s also true of Tony Watson, who has been good at times this year, but has also struggled at times. Watson hasn’t looked like the 2011 or 2012 version that pitched in the majors. The Pirates have a lot of left-handed depth. There’s Justin Wilson, who is currently out-performing Watson in the majors. They also have Kris Johnson and Mike Zagurski in the minors, and Andy Oliver if they want to go the Justin Wilson-route with him.

Jared Hughes did well tonight, inheriting one runner and getting the final two outs for Watson. But Hughes has also been inconsistent this year, and doesn’t look like the pitcher he was last year. With all of that depth in Triple-A, it would be hard to keep Hughes in the majors if he keeps up the inconsistent performances.

Depth is a good thing to have, but the problem with depth is that you have to go through a lot of bad performances until you turn to it. You don’t want to make a switch after a few bad outings, since that would create an atmosphere where no pitcher had any margin for error. At the same time you don’t want to keep trotting a struggling pitcher out there over and over and continue to cost yourself games. Based on the moves with Sanchez and Leroux, it looks like the Pirates are leaning more towards the former than the latter in their approach with making a switch. That’s not good news for guys like McDonald, Mazzaro, Watson, and Hughes if they keep up with their current inconsistent performances.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • joe g.

    The thing is though, the Pirates had a history on Leroux and they have one with JMac. Leroux’s body of work at the major league level was not good going back to 2009. It’s not like he pitched a ton of innings with Florida and the Bucs but looking at the body of work and injury issues, it just wasn’t working. JMac’s body of work with the exception of his first half last year, has been one of inconsistency. He has great stuff, but continues to have control issues. Considering the pitching depth, The real question with JMac is, “How do you justify keeping him in the rotation?”

  • jg941

    Good article, Tim.

    The one thing the Bucs need to do from a managment perspective is to start to manage like a team that expects to win and be there at the end of the year.

    One of those practices is to go with your latter approach above, to shorten the leash significantly on the non-perfomers. It can be demoralizing when a part of your team is putting in the hard work and performing, while another is erasing all of those gains.

    Continuing to talk about their depth is kind of a joke when the major league club is sticking with JMac, Hughes, Watson, etc. (and Sanchez for way too long, or at all) as their ERAs climb into the sixes (instead of letting them work it out in a less important environment), while letting others spin their wheels and dominate in AAA, like some of the folks you mention above, as well as others like Welker, Black, etc.

    The wins that they are letting a lot of these guys throw away in April and May are going to cause them a lot of pain come September, IMO.

  • leadoff

    IMO, it is not the Pirate pitchers in Milwaukee, but it is the pitching. The pitching approach is set up by the pitching coach, all the Pirate pitchers last night took the same approach and all of them gave up runs, except the last one. I don’t know what the right approach is in a place like that, I think if Bob Feller would have been pitching for the Pirates and they would have used their batboy to pinch hit he might have knocked it out of the park.
    I have yet to read or see one article on how to pitch to the Brewers in Miller Park.
    Remember the Brewers win nearly 2/3 of their games in that park.
    They turn the game into a softball game.
    I doubt very seriously if there is a pitcher in the entire Pirate system that I would have confidence in that they could go to Milwaukee and win. I think if Grilli would have gotten into last nights game they would have bombed him to.
    Today would be a good day to change everything, forget about winning today and use today to try and figure out what to do with this team the next time the Pirates get to Milwaukee, use today as an experimental day.

    • joe g.

      I respectfully disagree in that I believe it has been the pitchers. Home runs will be hit at Miller Park. The Bucs are hitting them too in this series. The issue is control – way too many walks. Pirate pitchers have been putting multiple runners on base with less than two outs and have paid the price. Hitters are going to hit some well pitched balls, having runners on base via the walk really hurts. Worse yet, Wandy and JMac were laying some fat pitches in there. Martin called for pitches on the inner or outer half and they layed beach balls right down the middle. At PNC, they can get away with more of those mistakes, but not at Miller Park.

  • leadoff

    Also, I doubt whether the Milwaukee series is going to make much difference to the Pirates about their plans for their pitching moves in the near future, IMO, a lot of those decisions have already been made. Someone like Locke could change their minds a bit however.
    I think in a case like JMac the Pirates can’t get wrapped up in what he did the first half of last year, they have to look at him and what they have now, they have a pitcher that has lost his 94-95 mph fastball and is trying to develop into a pitcher with a normal fastball. To me he is a good trade candidate.

  • smurph

    I feel that Searage has done an excellent job with the pitching staff the last couple of years. It is just hard to explain why the Brewers continue to blast Pirate pitching at home. That said, yes McDonald should be given one or two more chances. If he is not getting the job done, he should be moved to the BP or maybe he is a candidate for the DL because of reduced velocity. Looks like Liriano is ready to take one of those spots.

    • Sandoz

      I’m not sure if there’s any truth to it or not, but the Brewers have been acused of stealing sign at home before. Their home and away splits do seem a little fishy, more than can be attributed to feeling “comfortable”. Rumbunter posted a gif of Martin last night. He definitely seemed to be mad about something.

      Not saying that this is the sole reason for our pitchers to have walked so many, but it could explain it. If guys are teeing off on pitches because they know what’s coming, it would definitely cause the pitchers to start to avoid the bats and nibbling the zone.

      Maybe it’s reaching due to frustration on my part, but the more you look at the numbers, the more it looks like it could be the case.