Cinderella Can’t Score (NLDS Game 5: Cardinals 6, Pirates 1)

San Francisco Giants v Pittsburgh Pirates

This one hurts. Bad. Not like the mighty 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers – with Woodson, Llloyd, Greene & Co. – losing to the lowly Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. And definitely not like the 1992 Pirates losing to the Braves in disastrously depressing fashion, one out away from the World Series. But this one hurts.

I’m sure in a few days or weeks I’ll have better perspective, and the ability to appreciate what the Pirates just accomplished: Breaking a historic 20-year losing-seasons streak that was unprecedented in professional sports, and doing it not just by finishing with more wins than losses but qualifying for the playoffs, winning the Wildcard game, and taking the intimidating St. Louis Cardinals to the brink in the National League Divisional Series.

But right now, it stings.

Starting young rookie Gerrit Cole tonight over mercurial egomaniac A.J. Burnett was the right decision, and Cole pitched as well as anyone – rookie or veteran – can be expected to pitch in a major-league playoff game. Five innings, three hits, two runs. In reality, Cole made one mistake all night. Just one bad pitch, and it changed the entire game. Ahead 1-2 on third baseman David Freese – MVP of the 2011 World Series – with a man on first, catcher Russell Martin set up to receive a ball from Cole low and away that probably would’ve been strike three, but the ball obviously came out of Cole’s hand wrong and wound up hanging right over the plate, where Freese connected for a home run to left field. 2-0 Cardinals. And in a game in which veteran St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright was simply “on,” those two runs were enough to win the game.

Cole did not give up another run, and threw 51 of his 75 pitches for strikes, but for some reason was pulled after the fifth inning. I didn’t understand the move by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, especially after light-hitting Pittsburgh shortstop Clint Barmes led off the sixth with a single. Cole is a better hitter in clutch situations than anyone Pittsburgh had on the bench, and could have no doubt been depended on to either bunt Barmes over to second – a smart choice – or fake a but and smack a base hit. But Hurdle erred, big time.

First baseman Garrett Jones was one of Pittsburgh’s worst hitters in the regular season, batting a god-awful .196 after the All Star Break. He should not have been on the playoff roster at all, with rookie Andrew Lambo finding his stroke in September. But there Jones was, replacing Cole and popping up on the first pitch after Barmes’ single in the sixth. The next batter, struggling Starling Marte, hit into a double play. Inning over, and St. Louis’ confidence in winning the game, which equaled winning the series, buoyed not only by the Pirates’ inept hitting but the fact that Cole and his 100-mph fastballs had left the game.

The seventh was interesting, with three Pirates (Morneau, Byrd and Alvarez) reaching via infield singles. But after scoring just one run, the inning ended when Russell Martin – presumably needing to use the bathroom or something after watching all the excitement during the inning – grounded out on the first pitch he saw.  What kind of strategy is swinging at the first pitch when a veteran starter is beginning to ramp up his pitch count during a crazy inning?

Then, in the eighth Hurdle made another mistake, inserting pinch-hitter Jose Tabata – not an impressive batter or fielder – for Barmes, who had displayed great patience getting a hit off Wainwright in the sixth. Tabata grounded out on the third pitch he saw, and then Starling Marte again hit into a double play after pinch-hitter Jordy Mercer singled. Inexplicably, Tabata was inserted into the game to play left field for Marte, possibly the Pirates’ best defender. Tabata went on to miss a fly ball in the eighth that Marte would’ve easily caught.

Hurdle also erred, arguably, by bringing out shaky (lately) reliever Mark Melancon to face the heart of the Cardinals lineup with the score still close at 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth. Over the past month, it has become automatic for Melancon to give up at least one run in relief. With one out and Matt Holliday on first after a single, big Matt Adams walked to the plate and I said to my buddy, Ryan, “First pitch home run here; Melancon is going to make a mistake inside.” And that’s exactly what happened. Game over.

In the bottom of the eighth in an elimination game, when a team is trailing but still close, it seems like a no-brainer to bring in your closer. Because it may be the last time the other team comes to bat if they score even one run, which not only puts them ahead on the scoreboard but puts your team behind mentally. The home run to Adams was just devastating, and there was no way for the Pirates’ hitters to tell themselves, “Well, we’ve only scored one run in eight innings, but now, sure, we’ll get four and tie it in the ninth.” It was over right then.

Still most of the credit tonight has to go to Adam Wainwright, who threw an absolute gem and had a curveball for the ages. Plus, many of the Pirates’ hitters are easy outs if, like Wainwright, you don’t make a mistake. Especially Starling Marte, who swings at balls in the dirt regularly. And Pedro Alvarez, the mystifying third baseman who hit 36 homers in the regular season but struck out an almost unbelievable 186 times. In the postseason, Alvarez leads all major leaguers in home runs and RBI, but the key to getting him out is simple – don’t throw anything near the strike zone. He will chase and strike out. Worst-case scenario is he draws a walk.

The youngster Cole was impressive, and should be not only proud of himself for his performance tonight but excited for a long, successful career at the top of the Pirates’ rotation. But, plain and simple, he made a mistake and Wainwright didn’t. The Pirates only scored their hapless one run because of defensive miscues by the Cardinals in the seventh.

Like I said, this one hurts. Clint Hurdle – who gets way too much credit for the Pirates’ turnaround, when GM Neal Huntington made the right moves to finally get good players to Pittsburgh – did his club no favors with his, as usual, faulty in-game management – especially letting the long-struggling Jones hit rather than moving Barmes over when the score was 2-0 – and his absolutely stupid refusal to move Justin Morneau (0 HR, 0 RBI in the playoffs) out of the cleanup spot while Pedro Alvarez (3 HR, 6 RBI in the NLDS alone) lingered in the six-hole and Marlon Byrd regularly led innings off with hits after Morneau made the last out of the previous inning with a man on base. And the Pirates’ hitters just weren’t patient enough tonight to lay off Wainwright’s curveball and make him throw fastballs deep in counts, which I’m sure the Dodgers will do when they most likely win the 2013 NLCS.

But the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates’ season was a roller-coaster ride of a success story. From losing 105 games in 2010 to winning 72 games in 2011 to winning 79 games in 2012 to winning 94 this year and coming one win away from making the National League Championship Series….it was surprising and unforgettable, and I’m glad my three-year-old daughter was around to see it, and help me cheer for my hometown team.

Now the only question is, after miraculously making the playoffs following 20 years of depressing losing seasons, what will they do next year? A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd probably won’t be around, and keeping Alvarez – who, despite his astronomical strikeout rate, hit 39 HR including the playoffs – will be extremely difficult, as this winter represents his first time in arbitration.

We will see. For now…I am psyched to see what the Oakland Athletics, who I saw play at the Coliseum about 15 times a year for six years when I lived in the Bay Area, can do in their own elimination game against Detroit tomorrow night.

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