PITTSBURGH — The Pirates bullpen experiment had been cruising along until Friday, when everything came to crashing halt in the ninth inning as Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson imploded for six runs in a 9-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Here’s how it played out:
Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Hudson pitched scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh after Trevor Williams was pulled for a pinch hitter in the top of the sixth. Hudson’s last out was Albert Almora, Jr., who was batting ninth because Joe Maddon bats his pitchers eighth.
That set up the Cubs’ top of the order with Anthony Rizzo (.886 OPS), Ian Happ (.824) and Kyle Schwarber (.693) due up in the eighth. All three are left-handed. They were followed by Addison Russell (.661), Jason Heyward (.721) and Willson Contreras (.687), with Heyward the only lefty of the second trio.
It’s a perfect situation for Hurdle to do what he’s promised he would do and find the best situation to use his best relievers instead of managing to the save statistic. Two of the Cubs’ three best hitters were up and they — and the other batter due up that innings — were left-handed. It doesn’t get any more obvious than that. If Rivero set the side down in order, he could possibly get through Russell and Heyward in the ninth.
Hurdle did what he said he’d do and inserted Felipe Rivero to pitch the eighth. He gave up a weakly hit double to Ian Happ that started to unravel things. That meant that Rivero had to face Russell in the eighth and Russell caused him some trouble. Rivero eventually struck him out, but it took him 10 pitches to do and left him at 20 pitches overall on the inning — too many for Hurdle to send him back out for Heyward as he had intended.
“That’s what we were looking to do if the opportunity presented itself, if got him out at 13 or 14 (pitches),” Hurdle said. “Then Russell had a 10-pitch at-bat, and that tipped it for us right there. That’s (20) pitches, high-intensity, right through the meat of their order.”
With Rivero exhausted, Hurdle turned to Nicasio, who was his next-best available option. It just didn’t work out. Nicasio gave up three straight hits before being pulled for Watson, who gave up three more before Jhan Mariñez finally put out the fire.
The highest-leverage situation ended up being Contreras’ double in the ninth, with Russell’s strikeout and Schwarber’s at-bat in the eighth coming in a close second.
Of the three most important at-bats of the game, Rivero got two and Nicasio got one. There doesn’t seem to be a better way to work around that given the constraints of the arms involved and the sequencing of the Cubs hitters. Hurdle seemed to recognize that after the game.
“It set up the way we talked about it setting up and we didn’t finish it off,” he said.
WILLIAMS SETTLES IN
Trevor Williams had an eventful first inning. He gave up a lead-off home run to Anthony Rizzo that was called back. He then walked Rizzo, gave up a hit to Ian Happ, got two fielder’s choices — one of them a 7-5 play from Adam Frazier to David Freese and was on the cusp of getting out of the inning.
Then he walked Heyward, uncorked a wild pitch that scored one run and gave up a double to Contreras that gave up another.
“It was weird,” Williams said. “From the start it was weird. I think that would have been three leadoff homers for him (Rizzo), which would have been insane. It’s tough. I spiked a slider, then I spiked it again and then I hung it. It’s tough. It’s a lack of execution right there. He’s out if I execute that pitch and we hold them to one run. It’s unfortunate.”
After the rough start, Williams put two on the in the second, but a conversation with catcher Francisco Cervelli turned things around.
“Cervy came up to me and just said, ‘Why are you trying so hard? Why are you trying to do too much?’” Williams recalled. “It’s a reminder that I’ve been trying to work through this entire year. I’ve been trying to make perfect pitches, especially early. You can’t make perfect pitches every time. It’s just about execution. Cervy reminded me and it really got me back to center and figured out how to become the pitcher I am.”
Williams then retired the next 12 batters he faced.
“Williams got on a nice roll,” Hurdle said. “He started getting in a rhythm, aggressive. Two-seamer played. The slider. The mix was really good for innings two through five for him.”
Josh Bell has been regularly hitting fifth since Hurdle reshuffled the lineup with Andrew McCutchen hitting sixth.
It hasn’t been all great for Bell — he has a .214 batting average in that span — but he does feel that with McCutchen hitting better behind him, he’s seeing some pitches that he might not otherwise see. He gave the 3-1 pitch he sent over the 410 sign in the notch in left center as one of them.
“It’s cool, especially (now) that he’s on a roll,” Bell said. “You get a fastball out over to hit instead of a changeup, curveball, whatever. Gives me better pitches in those situations. It’s awesome.”