A Marte Partay, a Block, Electric Stuff, But Morneau’s Defense Was the Key

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a wild finish to tonight’s game. It started in the eighth inning when Mark Melancon came on to protect a one run lead. Melancon gave up a run on two hits for his third straight blown save. He got out of the inning with a 1-1 tie, sending it to the ninth inning. That’s when Starling Marte came up huge with a solo home run to left field, bailing Melancon out and putting the Pirates back on top with the biggest #MartePartay of the year.

It wasn’t over there. Tony Watson got the first out in the ninth, then Jason Grilli came on for the save. Grilli gave up a one out walk, then got a fielder’s choice for the second out of the inning. Ryan Sweeney followed with a single to right-center. Marlon Byrd charged over to backhand the ball and make a throw to keep the runner at third. Instead he missed the ball, and ran past it. The delay caused Nate Schierholtz to round third and head for home. Andrew McCutchen picked up the ball, and threw it toward the plate. Justin Morneau cut it off at the mound, turned and fired to Russell Martin, and Martin blocked Schierholtz and applied the game winning tag, holding on to the ball after the collision at the plate.

A few minutes later the St. Louis Cardinals wrapped up a win over the Washington Nationals, clinching the playoffs for the Pirates.

There were a lot of things lost in the ninth inning excitement, so here is a quick attempt to try and recap them.

Charlie Morton With Another Strong Start

About ten days ago, Charlie Morton put up his second bad start in a row, giving up three runs in five innings. That wasn’t really a bad start, but the Pirates did lose the game to the Cubs. It also followed a start where Morton gave up five in 1.2 innings. The combination, plus the general distrust in what Morton has been doing in the second half, led to people wondering if he was starting to fall apart.

Then Morton came back with eight innings and one earned run in his last start. That was followed up tonight with seven shutout innings, giving up three hits, one walk, and striking out five.

Morton has had his #ElectricStuff for most of the second half. Tonight was just another strong outing for him. When you look at the big picture, the five inning, three run start wasn’t that bad, and he’s only really had one bad outing since August 1st. He’s definitely a guy you can trust for the playoff rotation right now.

Justin Morneau's defense was the key to tonight's win. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Justin Morneau’s defense was the key to tonight’s win. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Justin Morneau’s Defense

I joked on Twitter that Justin Morneau might have had more defensive value tonight than Garrett Jones had his entire Pirates career. That might not be too much of an exaggeration. Morneau had one bad play defensively where he couldn’t field a grounder to first. He made up for it right away with a double play in the next at-bat, fielding a ball at first, stepping on the bag, and throwing to second for the tag. That was the second double play he was part of. He was also the middle man in a 4-3-6 double play. The main story here is that he made the successful throw to second two times in one game, which is something we haven’t seen from Pirates first basemen in a few years.

Morneau also came up big with his positioning at the end. If he’s not behind home plate, the ball goes wide, Martin can’t make the tag, and the Pirates are tied 2-2 with two outs and the winning run on second base. There was also the play to get the second out. Morneau made a great diving stop on a broken bat grounder to his right. He got up and made the throw to second. If he doesn’t get the out at second, the game is easily tied on Sweeney’s single. If he doesn’t make the play at all, the Pirates are in serious trouble.

Morneau’s defense might have been the biggest reason the Pirates won tonight.

Mark Melancon Struggles Again

This is the third straight outing that Mark Melancon blew a lead. Once again, he didn’t give up any hard hits. He barely missed a towering home run, which went foul, but the first hit was a soft liner to center, and the second one was a shot past Pedro Alvarez, who was playing way too far in.

You could chalk it up to Alvarez playing in too far, but the runner got to third due to a wild pitch. You could chalk that up to a bad block from Russell Martin, allowing the ball to get away and the runner to advance. None of that really says anything about Melancon going forward.

I still don’t have any concerns with Melancon’s stuff going forward. He’s still a guy who gets a strikeout per inning, doesn’t walk anyone, doesn’t give up homers, gets a lot of ground balls, and not many fly balls.

The Melancon situation reminds me of the stance I took with Charlie Morton back in July. Morton was getting hit around a lot, but he wasn’t really getting hit hard. He kept seeing soft singles, or grounders through a hole in the infield. You could chalk it up to bad luck, and I did chalk it up to bad luck. It kept happening, which gave the illusion that it was somehow something Morton was doing.

The difference is that Morton was having those problems over multiple starts. Melancon’s problems have been limited to three innings. That’s three innings of balls getting past infielders, or weak singles to the outfield. It’s three innings of runners getting free bases on wild throws or wild pitches. But mostly it’s three innings.

My only concern with Melancon is his confidence. Not his confidence in his stuff, but his confidence in his game. There’s nothing wrong with Melancon’s approach of getting a strikeout an inning and relying on ground balls for outs. But with so many balls that have gone past fielders in the past week, it would be easy for him to lack trust in his defense. That could lead to him going for more strikeouts rather than playing his game and getting ground balls. And while everyone wants strikeouts, the worst thing a pitcher can do is alter his game. Hopefully these last three innings haven’t affected Melancon’s approach, and he continues his game of a strikeout per inning and a lot of ground balls.

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.

    Hoka Hey!!!!! This has been an awesome season!

    • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

      On Melancon, hopefully Dan Fox can run a quick analysis and position Walker out further into RF or something to catch those weak cheese flares. Melancon still has no issues with LHB, only RHB willing to stick a bat on outside corner for a bloop. He may need to bust an additional pitch inside, but other than that long foul ball, doesn’t look like he’s missing any spots.

      Morton’s ERA in last nine starts is 2.73. Take out the “foot discomfort” game and it’s 1.99. He looks confident and in charge.

      • leadoff

        Maybe they can scrap the no doubles outfield alignment and bring those outfielders in to normal depths instead of standing them at the wall, could be they might catch a bloop or two!

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      You HAD to mention “Hoka Hey” didn’t you?

      Bleep “Hoka Hey” and the columnist who tried to make it a story!

      Foo

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      If Melancon catches that comebacker, it is two quick outs and he gets a ‘hold’.

      I was surprised at his .288/.144 (RHB and LHB splits)

      • smurph

        No. The runner was moving on the pitch. Very doubtful Melancon could have gotten him.

  • CalipariFan506

    I’m glad Hurdle finally realized its late September and used Watson for Rizzo. Rizzo has beaten Grilli and the Pirates three times in the past two seasons. Didn’t want to give him another opportunity.

  • leadoff

    Great move by Hurdle to bring in Watson, bad move by Hurdle to take him out with 3 more lefties on the way.

    • https://profiles.google.com/117072260031604417798 PikeBishop65

      Yeah, that one had me scratching my noggin too. Closer or not, I would have played the percentages and kept the lefty in. With one out if Watson gives up a hit, then you bring in Grilli.

      • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

        Navarro is a lefty, but he has reverse splits with a .367 BAA versus left-handers. So the smart play was going to Grilli in that case. Of course, Grilli ended up walking him.

        • leadoff

          I knew about navarro’s switchhitting splits, but I still stick with Watson, he pitches to right handers pretty well and keeps the ball in the yard.
          They could have brought Grilli in to the game for Navarro and taken him out for Wilson also. I do not think the Pirates have a solid closer or setup man at this point in time, I go with rightly/lefty managing to every hitter right now.

  • leadoff

    I do agree that Morneau saved the day, four plays on 1 hit ball, 2 of them bad and 2 of them good.
    Morneau showed why defense is so important, he made some terrific plays during that game, I did not think I would ever see a Pirate first basemen that could actually throw the ball to second base, that alone made me a Morneau fan.

    • emjayinTN

      We do not have a 1B for next year and will be looking at possibly $6 mil for Jones in Arbitration. The closest possibility in the minors is Dickerson and he is only in AA. For my money, I take a flyer at Morneau for a 3 year contract. He made $14 mil the past few years, but he is not the guy coming off an MVP Season – therefore, I think that he may be willing to take a lot less for a 3 year gig with a competitive team. My thought is 3 years/$27 mil. If he wants a large bonus, take it out and keep the total at $27 mil. I think on a full season basis he would be a .270/35 double/23 HR guy with great D and field presence, and with the pitching staff of the Pirates, the infield better be strong. If we can get him, that would lock up the team defensively for at least the next 3 years.

  • smurph

    Well there certainly is an issue with Melancon, and for that matter Grilli as well. You can say the hits off Melancon were weak contact, but RH batters have figured out you just lay the bat out there and slap that cutter to right field. He is effective against LHB. Against righties, he needs to either locate that cutter on the inside corner or out of the zone away. A better strategy would be to go to the 4-seamer or well-located changeup against righties. As for Grilli, his velocity is not back. His fastball doesn’t have enough movement at 92 or 93, so he has been throwing more breaking balls. He is getting a little more comfortable out there, but he needs to get up tp 94 or 95 so batters have less time to negotiate that fastball.

    • leadoff

      Since slapping the ball to right field is a problem with Melancon pitching, possibly they need to adjust the outfield and get that right fielder in to normal depth instead of playing him so deep, Walker’s depth depends on more factors.
      The Pirates get these stubborn streaks where adjusting away from the plan is unheard of, they have this 8th and 9th inning no doubles defense that they have to use in their outfield and it is a killer to pitchers that don’t get hit hard.

    • Andrew

      I agree Grilli’s velocity drop is concerning, his break is there again with the slider but how the velocity affects the interplay of pitches is concerning. I really do not think anything is wrong with Melacon, if this supposed “approach” is so successful and simple for RHH, why did it take five months? His K, BB and GB rates have not moved. As far as shifting to counteract the flare to right, I feel like that this is a game theory decision tree with no apparent equilibrium state.

      Leadoff, I agree with your point about no solid setup, closer and go with the match up. Further is this such a bad thing, I was thrilled that match ups were used 8th inning against Reds and last night.

      However, I think the concern over the relief staff obscures the facts, that the run production has gone the opposite direction since the acquisition of Morneau. I do not fault Morneau, his .299 SLG hasn’t helped, but this is a less arbitrary cut point.

  • smurph

    I have a question about Marte. If he was able to crush a home run last night, why isn’t he starting? Sure he has pain. Play through it. With the way Tabata is playing, I believe it would be smart to give him a couple of games in RF. Maybe a couple days off will help Byrd, who hasn’t done much lately.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I think there are two ways to view that home run.

      1. That it’s a sign he’s healthy and should be in the lineup
      2. That he’s not fully healthy, which makes the home run even more amazing

      • smurph

        Marte needs to get at bats against live pitching the next 5 games. If not, he can’t be expected to be helpful in the playoff(s).