Pirates Loss to Cardinals a Microcosm of the Season For Both Teams

ST. LOUIS — Heading into this series between the Pirates and the Cardinals, I wrote that the Pirates had to sweep the Cardinals to keep their division hopes alive. A sweep would have put them 3.5 games out in the NL Central, with three more games remaining against St. Louis. Anything less puts them at least 5.5 out, which would require the red-hot Cardinals to lose a few games to other teams in order to climb back in the race.

Today’s game was the biggest challenge the Pirates faced. They had Charlie Morton on the mound, who had been one of their better pitchers for the last month, but also struggled against the Cardinals in recent years. The Pirates ended up losing 4-1 tonight, meaning they have now lost the last ten games that Morton has started in St. Louis.

“Everybody knows the circumstance,” Morton said of this series against St. Louis. “It’s frustrating to keep coming here. I don’t think I’ve beat them here since 2011.”

While that’s true, the last few starts by Morton against St. Louis haven’t been bad. In 2014 he combined for one earned run in 13 innings over two starts, including seven shutout innings of one hit ball at Busch Stadium on July 7th, a game in which the Pirates lost 2-0. Tonight was a similar story. He ended up with six innings, giving up two runs, one earned, on four hits, with three walks and three strikeouts. And the runs came on a crazy play.

Morton ran into some trouble in the second inning when he walked Kolten Wong and hit Jon Jay with a pitch with one out. A sacrifice bunt by Jaime Garcia put runners at second and third with two outs. He then decided to pitch around Matt Carpenter to load the bases for Stephen Piscotty.

“Carp’s seen me a lot, and he’s a great hitter,” Morton said. “Not saying Piscotty is not, but I do better against righties. So we pitched around Carp.”

Morton was able to get a ground ball to a shifted infielder on Piscotty. However, the ball had some crazy top spin, and took a huge bounce over Josh Harrison’s head. Harrison was able to leap and prevent the ball from going to the outfield, but made an off-balanced throw to first that got by Michael Morse, leading to two runs (one of which scored as a result of the bad throw). Without the crazy bounce, Morton may have gone six shutout innings, as he went on to retire 13 of the next 15 batters to finish his outing.

The Pirates did give up two more runs off of Arquimedes Caminero in the seventh inning, but that didn’t matter much. They couldn’t hit Jaime Garcia all day, with the lefty shutting them down for seven shutout innings.

“He’s pitched very effectively,” Hurdle said, while earlier noting that Garcia has been pitching great recently. “The numbers are real that we saw coming in. We saw the video tape.”

“That’s what he does,” Sean Rodriguez noted after a game where he had three of the four hits against Garcia. “He’s got a good cutter, obviously, to keep guys from jumping out over the plate. And then he’s got that good changeup and that breaking ball that goes out over the outer half and gets a lot of ground balls. You saw that today.”

The Pirates challenged in the ninth inning, bringing the tying run to the plate with two outs and Gregory Polanco pinch-hitting. But they couldn’t fight all the way back, with Trevor Rosenthal striking out Polanco to end the game.

“We came up short,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to battle. We’re going to play to the end. We fought to get some men on base. At the end of the day, we needed to make more things happen earlier than that.”

The pitching performances were a microcosm of the seasons the Pirates and the Cardinals were having. The Pirates had a pitcher who had a great outing, but it just wasn’t enough to beat the Cardinals starter who had an amazing outing, and it was all thanks to a lucky bounce that went the Cardinals way. Granted, Morton partially put himself in that situation in the second inning, but it was one bad inning in an otherwise great night.

And that’s pretty much the story of the season. The Pirates are on pace for 97 wins and are the third best team in baseball, but they are 6.5 games back from the Cardinals, who seem to have everything going their way in addition to their own strong performances. And like Morton tonight, their biggest problem is that they haven’t been perfect, instead settling for being really good.

The end result here is that the division hopes for the Pirates are almost certainly dashed. There is the possibility that St. Louis could lose a few games and head to Pittsburgh at the end of the month with a smaller division lead. But they’ve got seven games against the Reds and seven against the Brewers until that time, and don’t have the same poor history against Milwaukee that the Pirates have seen in recent years.

Anything could happen, but at this point, the only realistic battle for the playoffs boils down to whether the Pirates or Cubs will host the Wild Card game.

A More Consistent Sean Rodriguez

For most of the season, Sean Rodriguez has had one key value to the Pirates: defense. He has served as a defensive replacement at several positions, primarily at first base. The offense has struggled all year, up until recently. Rodriguez is 5-for-6 so far in this series against St. Louis, including three hits today.

“I’ve been working with [Branson] and [Livesey],” Rodriguez said after tonight’s game. “Basically we’re just trying to find that one thing that might help me be more consistent, especially coming off the bench.”

It’s not just the last two games. Rodriguez has a .378/.417/.467 line in 48 plate appearances since the start of August. So it’s possible that he might have found some consistency.

“We’ve been working all year on that, and we’ve definitely found a couple things that we hold on to, and a couple of keys that they see if I’m not doing, right away they tell me,” Rodriguez said.

It’s a small sample size of success, but it’s an encouraging sign to see Rodriguez hitting well lately, as he could be a valuable bench piece for the Pirates in the post-season with his defense and ability to play all over the field.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 6, 2015 5:27 pm

    Morton is usually his own worst enemy – yes, you can blame a bad bounce or Harrison for the first two runs in the game, but Morton’s 2 walks and hit batsman put the team in that situation. I would never trust Morton to win a big game for me…he is what he is – a very mediocre journeyman pitcher. And, yet, the Pirates will likely keep him and he’ll be back in the rotation again next year, while Taillon, Kingham, and Glasnow toil away in AAA.

    What everyone thought was smart 3 year extension for Morton a couple years ago, is actually now a bad contract – because we’re seemingly stuck with him. The team won’t cut him because of his contract, but he should be let go.

    • Kingham is likely out for 2016. Taillon would need at least a half season at AAA just to get back to where he was, not for Super Two reasons. And Glasnow… well, read the two articles Tim posted earlier.

      Meantime, if Charlie hadn’t missed nine starts and performed exactly to his current numbers/ratios, he’d be Jimmy Nelson. And better than James Shields.

  • Lineup out, more nonsense. Kang sits(one of best hitters in mlb, better numbers than matt carpenter) so mercer and aramis can get in lineup. This is just stupid. You want to play mercer for his defense fine. Put kang at 3rd/ he is much better both defensively and offensively than ramirez. If you insist at playing aramis then kang has to play ss. How many days off has kang had in last 2 weeks now?

  • So just curious… let’s say that during the Sept run Bucs go 5-2 vs Cubs, sweep the Reds and Brewers and finish 3-1 vs Cards. Then go 3-4 vs Dodgers/Rockies.

    That would be 100 wins plus a .500 record or better vs every NL Central team.

    What’s the complaint from the hoi polloi going to be at that point?

    • I mean, what if they win out and everybody hits a homer every game and Morton and Locke look like glavine and maddux down the stretch?

      What if’s are fun!

      • Winning out would only be 107 wins. There would be complaints about not winning 117.

        Point being, who gives a crap if Bucs lose to the Reds and Brewers instead of the Mets and DBacks. The only divisional losses that matter are the ones vs Cards and Cubs. Any other loss in the division is just a loss.

  • At what point should the Pirates concede the division and try to get healthy, maybe have Cole and Liriano skip a start? Maybe the team would relax a bit and actually gain some ground. Last year we went all out for the division and I think it hurt us in the WC. Cole and Liriano seem spent. I know the risk is losing Home Field, but honestly I think the Cubs are slipping a bit when Arieta doesn’t pitch.

  • The Cardinals have been accuse of not been able to hit lefties, I feel that the pirates are in the same boats, not all lefties of course, but the soft tossing junk balers, think how we struggle against the Marlins Hand, the Reds rookie lefty which name I forget it used to be that we could count on Cutch, Marte and Mercer to carry the offense against lefties, not so much anymore.

  • Play Walker. Enough with the little league “make everybody happy” routine.

    • Tim,
      This was a must win game…..as you point out early in the story. What is not mentioned or analyzed in your coverage is an obvious major issue about this game. The Lineup. Hurdle chose to field an all righty, defense first lineup that failed miserably. Some of his hottest run producers were on the bench. Rather than even mention this you focused on the only positive in the game….Sean Rodriguez.
      From a pure journalistic standpoint, how could you choose to ignore this issue? Even if your personal belief is that Hurdle’s lineup is defensible the issue should be recognized and discussed. People were questioning the lineup as soon as it was announced. There should be more balance in the approach on this site from all the writers.

      • Totally agree. Ramirez not starting for the second night in a row? What a joke! This team’s offense was very good without J-Hay and Jordy. Quit trying to appease everyone and leave Mercer and Harrison on the bench. Kang was hot as could be until he started giving him days off when Jordy returned. I am sure these 2 days didn’t help Rammy’s rhythm much either. Just plain stupid.

        • Agreed. Completely ridiculous. Everyone knew a loss was coming the second the line up card was posted. If either Harrison or Mercer starts tonight I’m going to start questioning Hurdle’s intelligence,

          • Mercer is the best defensive shortstop on the team, and has a .754 OPS since his return, which is good at shortstop when paired with the defense. There are currently only five qualified shortstops this year who are hitting above that pace. Granted, one is Kang. However, you also get a huge defensive downgrade by going with Kang over Mercer at short.

            • Lol why are you talking about 30 plate appearances from mercer when he is a 68 Wrc+ player on the year?

        • Hurdle’s excuse for not playing Walker in game one was ridiculous…his reasoning for not putting Kang at SS and having an RBI machine lately in Ramirez in the lineup is equally ridiculous. His refusal to remove Locke from the rotation despite years of consistent evidence and despite his continued assertion that winning the division is top priority is ludicrous. His inability to get this team to have success in the division the last two years is worrisome. Hurdle, it seems, is basically a wind-bag…a ra-ra…inspire the players and have a good clubhouse environment but not have a clue how to MANAGE the lineup, rotation, or produce a divisor winner…and I don’t want to hear that we have the 3rd best record in baseball…we’ve continued to hand games to opponents with poor lineup decisions, poor rotation decisions, and we are basically the Brewers in our own division despite vastly superior talent. I wouldn’t care if we piggybacked relievers instead of Locke…Liz for 2-3, Worley for 2-3, Blanton for 2-3…anything to show that we are responding to a clear issue that is preventing this team from having the best opportunity to win ball games.

          • “his reasoning for not putting Kang at SS and having an RBI machine lately in Ramirez in the lineup is equally ridiculous.”

            Kang vs Mercer in UZR/150 at SS

            Kang: -5.0
            Mercer: 1.7

            Kang vs Ramirez in UZR/150 at 3B

            Kang: 3.4
            Ramirez: 3.5

            Ramirez vs Mercer Splits vs LHP

            Mercer: .707 OPS, .308 wOBA, 96 wRC+
            Ramirez: .670 OPS, .284 wOBA, 75 wRC+

            If you put Kang at shortstop, you see a massive downgrade in defense. The defense at third base is a wash. And Mercer has been a better hitter this year vs LHP than Ramirez, so you’re also expected to see a decline offensively.

            And even if we throw out the yearly numbers and focus on the recent hot streak by Ramirez, it doesn’t help. From 8/29 to 9/4:

            Ramirez: 1.050 OPS, .436 wOBA, 184 wRC+
            Mercer: 1.283 OPS, .544 wOBA, 257 wRC+

            So yeah, Ramirez has been on a hot streak. But so has Mercer. And that last split was an attempt to give Ramirez credit for better offense than he’s had on the season. If you sit Mercer, move Kang to shortstop, and start Ramirez, you’re taking a huge downgrade in defense for no apparent upgrade offensively (and possibly a downgrade based on the season and recent stats).

            Also, why are you complaining about Walker in game one when the Pirates won 9-3?

            • Sorry tim there is no comparison defensively between kang and ramirez at 3b. Baseball info solutions has kang at 4 runs saved at 3b and aramis at -12 runs saved. Aramis has been awful at 3b this year.

            • The recent “hot streak” from ARam is longer than a week.

              Anyway, just to make this more interesting, here are wRC+ numbers for five players for the full season, the past 30 days, the past 14 days and the past 7 days:

              Kang: 130 136 106 125
              ARam: 94 132 145 181
              Mercer: 68 115 115 165
              Serpico: 76 156 348 472
              Walker: 106 100 68 77

              So Serpico starts every game at 2b, right?

      • I didn’t have a problem with the lineup. I think the Pirates are in a position where, no matter who they start, they’re going to bench a good player.

        In this case, they were playing the matchups. They went with strong infield defense with Morton on the mound, and all right-handers with Garcia on the mound. And one of the reasons people complained about the lineup was due to Sean Rodriguez. He had three hits off Garcia. The only other hit came from McCutchen.

        In general, I don’t break down lineups. Every single lineup posted generates some level of criticism. The criticism is almost always geared towards offense, with no regard towards defense. Sometimes the moves work out, and sometimes they don’t. When they work out, people ignore it. When they don’t work out, people forget that any move in the past has ever worked, and act like it was guaranteed that this wouldn’t work out.

        The fact is, Garcia pitched a great game. That’s what I focused on. I don’t think any other lineup guarantees them a better outcome offensively. I also don’t think anyone is considering the defense with any lineup changes.

        As for Rodriguez, I added that at the end as a note, just because I had no plans of saving those quotes and that info and expanding it to a featured article.

        • We can agree to disagree on the lineup last night. The lineup last night was a significant story as soon as it was announced. Five regulars were on the bench. You choose to focus on Mercer’s defense….but ignore the lack of RBI production from last night’s starters.

          • I’ve never focused on RBI production. That’s a horrible stat and it’s not predictive.

            Also, the Pirates don’t really have “regulars”. They’ve got two spots in the infield that are platoon roles (Alvarez, Walker). They’ve got four infielders who are good enough to start, and need to divide up playing time (Kang, Ramirez, Mercer, Harrison). This isn’t a team that has eight established starters and five guys on the bench who only play once a week.

            • Lol I agree rbis are not predictive. But are the few at bats mercer has had since returning from injury predictive?

            • No they have one guy good enough to start(kang one of best hitters in mlb) and 3 flawed guys. Mercer is solid d, awful bat. Harrison is good but looks like thumb may take awhile to get his stroke back with. And ramirez is a below league average hitter who plays poor defense/ recency bias aside.

            • Cervelli, Walker, Ramirez, Alverez, Polanco had 268 RBIs and 63 homeruns heading into last night. Stewart, Harrison, Mercer, Morse and Rodriquez had 80 RBIs and 13 homeruns. Predictably, that weak lineup flopped. I don’t agree that RBI production is a horrible stat. Do you think Harrison is producing at the plate and merits a platoon role?

    • Yes we are in a pennant race and he had a Sunday getaway lineup.

  • Morton didn’t partially put himself in that situation in the second inning, he PUT himself in that situation in the second inning. Its what he does.

    • Good post. Throw strikes and you never have to rely on the ball hit to second to take a good bounce. His inability to consistently throw strikes has cost the Bucs several games.

  • If the Pirates do not get the 1st Wild Card it will be completely embarrassing for this team…the SP will not have helped at all down the stretch, nor the inconsistent offense…and Hurdle will not have helped much either…giving Locke another start is, essentially, giving away a game.