PITTSBURGH — The Pirates got to Felix Hernandez early and often, touching the Seattle Mariners ace for nine hits over six innings, but they were undone by some pitching struggles of their own and a lack of timely hitting for a 7-4 loss to the Mariners at PNC Park Tuesday night.
The Pirates scored all four of their runs in the first two innings, with Gregory Polanco and Francisco Liriano hitting solo home runs and Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang adding RBIs. After the second, the Bucs went right on hitting, racking up a total of 12 on the night.
But some poor sequencing led to the Pirates leaving runners on scoring position in five of the final six innings, including two frames with runners on second and third and no outs.
“Nobody likes to go up there and not get the job done,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re well aware of the fact that we’re 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position. That compounds the challenge [of facing Hernandez].”
Those that view the game with a Sabermetric slant typically de-emphasize statistics with runners in scoring position. I asked Hurdle what his take was on his team’s inability to find a way to push through some runs and come up with a comeback.
“I liked the game plan throughout the game,” he said. “We pushed [Hernandez] every inning. We were able to score and then he was able to keep us off the plate the last four innings.”
But he was much more comfortable talking about the successes and failures of each at-bat, rather than reading too much into the team’s performance as a whole.
“I think you need to look at the individual situations,” he said. “I don’t see a big-picture theme.”
One of the things that does affect a team’s sequencing is the batting order, and Andrew McCutchen’s hold on a top spot seems to be getting more tenuous. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts — both of them with runners in scoring position — and grounded into a double play. He also was hit by a pitch and scored in the first.
Things were going well for McCutchen before the all-star break with a big series against the Chicago Cubs, but since then, they have really run off the rails. Since returning from the break, he is now hitting .189 (7 for 37) with a .484 OPS. That figure doesn’t befit a top-of-the-order hitter.
Hurdle was asked about potentially moving McCutchen down in the order on Sunday, but declined to discuss the matter publicly.
Of course, many nights, four runs is enough for a team to win a game, even with an inefficient offense. But Francisco Liriano was completely ineffective, giving up eight hits and seven runs in 3.1 innings of work.
“I couldn’t get anything going,” he said. “I was missing with the fastball. I was missing with everything. They have a pretty good lineup. They were taking good swings. They were putting the ball in play. I walked a couple of guys, too. It was one of those days where you don’t have anything going.”
Liriano has discussed at length the reasons that his fastball command sets everything else up for him. It allows him to work the slider in offensive counts and force hitters to swing at his frequently-out-of-the-zone breaking pitch. But when he isn’t getting ahead of hitters, it’s a lot easier for them to take a pass on the slider, and he ends up walking batters or finding too much of the plate in an attempt to avoid walking them.
“It felt different,” he said of his fastball. “I felt like I was rushing a little bit and trying to overthrow. It was a tough night for me.”
That overthrowing was noticed by both Liriano and Cervelli. Liriano said that he “felt too good,” meaning that he felt the could throw the pitch harder than perhaps he should.
“[His fastball was] good — 96 sometimes,” Cervelli said. “Sometimes it’s a problem when we feel super good because we always have some pain. We always have something. When you go to the stadium and nothing bother you, that can be against you. Most of the time, we don’t know how to handle it. … He had a lot of power today.”
Cervelli also was quick to absolve Liriano of all the blame for the latter’s poor outing, and the two run homer by Kyle Seager.
“I put the wrong finger. It was me,” Cervelli said. “I think I called the wrong pitch, especially 3-2. I’ll take the bullet. I think I can do better because he trusts me, so it’s my fault.”
Liriano admitted that the inability to make an adjustment mid-start was the bigger problem than simply coming out of the gate with a lack of command.
“I know what I’m doing wrong, sometimes you feel too good and you can make an adjustment and change something, but at the same time, you want to compete, you don’t want to hang a pitch or make too many mistakes,” he said.
ON THE MEND
Cervelli went 2 for 4 at the plate and is now 4 for his last 7 after starting 1 for 10 since returning from his hamate bone injury.
“I’m feeling a little better every day. I’m just trying not to think about anything when I’m hitting so I just help the best I can,” he said. “I feel like I’m seeing more pitches and I just go there to try to get on base and have a good at-bat. That’s it.”
Five Pirates relievers combined to pitch 5.2 scoreless inning while allowing just three hits and striking out six, which allowed the offense many opportunities to attempt to tie the game. Notable in the bullpen’s strong run was the performance of new additions Jeff Locke (two innings, one hit, two strikeouts) and Jon Niese (one inning, one strikeout).
“These guys are amazing,” Cervelli said. “They were starters, now they’re in the bullpen. Anyway you need it, they’re going to give you the best they have. Even when they have a tough night, they come back fresh and they give you the best they can.”
Locke’s career numbers in relief are impressive, if admittedly a small sample. He has a 0.00 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP while striking out four and walking none in 8.2 innings. I asked Locke if there was something in particular that resulted in his success out of the pen.
“If all goes as planned, you’ll never face the same hitter twice. That’s a little bit different,” he said. “It’s not like as a starter, I ever thought about pacing myself, but I do think it is a lot different out of the bullpen. It’s definitely a lot different at this level pitching through the lineup a second time and a third time. Maybe too much thought goes in, maybe not enough thought goes in sometimes.”
But even despite his track record, he doesn’t consider himself a real reliever like the other members of the bullpen.
“What our guys do in the pen that’s so impressive is come back again tomorrow and do it,” he said. “I won’t pitch tomorrow. Our guys that throw an inning come back the next day and throw and inning again like it’s no big deal. That stuff is pretty impressive. I know they’re trained to do it, but still, to throw 3 of 5 or 3 of 4 and be pretty clean, that’s pretty impressive.”
Locke also seemed to think that his move to relief will be temporary.
“I’m just down there to get some work right now,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be in the bullpen, I’m just in the bullpen right now. I don’t know anything any further than that. I would assume I’m not pitching Friday, which makes a lot of sense now, but I would think once this stretch of off days is over, I’ll be back to normal again.”