Kris Johnson was the man who least deserved to be charged with the loss and make the final out of the Pirates’ 16-inning home defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In his Major League debut, the left-hander pitched five scoreless innings of relief and allowed only one baserunner into scoring position over those frames. But the rookie gave up a walk and line-drive single in the 16th, then Arizona’s Adam Eaton knocked an two-RBI double (his career-high fourth hit) just in front of sliding center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
“I wish I would have made a better pitch,” Johnson said, calling McCutchen’s effort to catch the possible inning-ender “outstanding.”
In the Bottom 16th, Johnson came up to bat with two outs and the tying run on base, but J.J. Putz struck him out swinging to close the Diamondbacks’ series victory.
“We had nobody else on the bench, so there’s really nothing you could have done,” Johnson said, and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he did not want to risk Gerrit Cole getting hurt as a hitter.
No, the fault for the Bucs’ loss (their third straight in extra-inning games) lies in the offense not scoring at all after the 3rd inning. More on that after we detail another great pitching performance.
Morton Provides Great Start
The Pirates would likely not have even gotten into extras had it not been for Charlie Morton pitching so well. Morton struck out his first four hitters, freezing three on his sharp breaking ball. Then he got 10 of his last 24 hitters to ground out for the quality start. The right-handed sinker-baller located well, getting 25 called strikes over his seven innings.
“I’ve been getting good results on my curveball,” Morton said. “I did get ahead. But I don’t think my command was any better, necessarily, than it was. Maybe just more aggressive initially and early in at-bats.”
After allowing only three hits (on 61 pitches) in the first five innings, Morton needed a little ground-ball luck to dance through each of his final two frames. Adam Eaton and Martin Prado led off the 6th with back-to-back singles, then MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt walked on four pitches. Aaron Hill followed with a bases-loaded RBI single to cut the Pirates’ lead to 2-1, and it looked like big trouble for Morton.
But Morton, as he does, drew a ground-ball double play for the second straight inning (a run scored from third base) then another ground ball to keep Arizona from going ahead.
“The game could have gotten on the other side for him, and he didn’t let it,” Hurdle said. “The breaking ball is coming into play more and more prominently… None of those guys hit many balls up the middle.”
With the game still tied 2-2 in the 7th, Morton returned on 78 pitches to walk leadoff man Didi Gregorius and let a Tuffy Gosewisch ground-ball single sneak through. After Wade Miley’s bunt, Morton hit Adam Eaton with a 1-2 fastball to load the bases again. The pitching coach visited, but Hurdle kept Morton in to draw a Prado lineout and strike out Goldschmidt swinging. The sold-out crowd of 37,518 cheered and rose to applaud Morton’s fine start (7 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 6 K).
“[Hurdle] has let me finish innings where it could have gone either way,” Morton said. “I do appreciate that.”
Offense Does Not Create
Tony Watson pitched a scoreless 8th and 9th, Mark Melancon a scoreless 10th and Kris Johnson a scoreless 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th. It was Johnson’s Major League debut, and it came in the extra innings of a tie game for a team in an important game for its playoff odds.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking at first. We’re in a pennant race,” Johnson said. “I just tried to go as deep as I could, try to save the bullpen. That was the main thing.”
Hurdle said of Johnson’s 82-pitch outing: “You couldn’t ask him for anything more than he did, other than find a way to win that game.” Problem was, the Pirates offense had averaged only four runs per nine innings since the All-Star Break, and they could not get anybody home.
The Pirates scored in the first and third innings via RBI doubles from Russell Martin and Neil Walker. After that, the Bucs collected only six hits over the final 13 innings. The middle of the lineup of Andrew McCutchen, Martin and Pedro Alvarez combined to go 1-for-17 (though McCutchen drew three walks). The Bucs went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 13 runners aboard.
There was also a curious manager’s decision in the 8th inning. Starling Marte led off by reaching on a bunt single. At that point, Hurdle had a few options with only six outs left in the regular innings:
- Allow Marte (35-for-47 in stolen bases) to steal second on rookie catcher Tuffy Gosewisch
- Let Jordy Mercer hit-and-run to avoid a potential double play
- Let Mercer swing away against laboring LHP Wade Miley, as Mercer has a.975 OPS in his young career against lefties
- Generally don’t take the bat out of the hands of Andrew McCutchen (career .332 with a .995 OPS vs. lefties)
- Have Mercer bunt for the inning’s first out. Miley will intentionally walk McCutchen to get to Martin.
Hurdle chose the bunt, and the Pirates’ win expectancy dropped. Why pick the bunt? His response in full:
“I felt that we could push an opportunity to get Russell Martin to the plate to swing to win the game, and Pedro Alvarez. Unfortunately, we never got to Pedro. But the walk to Cutch, that’s not unexpected. But you give Martin a chance to win the game, and you’re gonna get Pedro a chance to win the game.”
MVP candidate McCutchen was intentionally walked, Martin struck out and Marte was thrown out trying to swipe third base.
Pittsburgh’s offense got other chances with runners in scoring position: Tony Sanchez struck out to end the 9th, Martin flew out to right to end the 12th, then Johnson struck out to end the 16th and the game.
So the Pirates head to the West Coast after losing two of three to both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Diamondbacks, placing the Bucs just one game ahead in the NL Central and 7.5 games ahead of the D-Backs fighting to get in the playoff picture.
They will either carry an atypical 13 pitchers in San Diego or San Francisco or add a hitter. That fact is more important than your typical roster procedure news.