Words on NLDS Game 1 (Cardinals 9, Pirates 1)

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Clint Hurdle (AP photo)

Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager. That sentence may seem surprising coming from a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan who just watched his team break out of a historic 20-year losing streak to not only finish with more wins than losses but qualify for the wildcard playoff game and crush the Reds in it to advance to the NLDS. But Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager.

In any line of work, any relationship, any experience, the test of someone’s aptitude, mettle, intelligence, capability, etc., is when he or she faces adversity. Smiling, clapping and patting people on the butt when things go well is easy. Champagne celebrations are easy. Don’t get me wrong: I will never stop being grateful to Clint Hurdle for being the guy coaching the Pirates when the curse was finally broken. His predecessor, John Russell, coached considerably worse than the job that could’ve been done by a crash-test dummy. And managing a team with one of the lowest payrolls in its sport to the postseason is not easy, no, but the Pirates’ talent is underestimated, and GM Neal Huntington is much more responsible for the Pirates’ resurgence than Hurdle. At one point this season the Pirates’ starting lineup included four first-round draft picks (Cole, Alvarez, McCutchen and Tony Sanchez), and the team shelled out unprecedented (for Pittsburgh) dollars this year for high-priced players such as Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano (whose salary ended up being only partially paid due to an injury), A.J. Burnett (salary partly paid by the Yankees), Wandy Rodriguez (salary partly paid by the Astros) and Justin Morneau (paid a few million by Pittsburgh to play one month). The 2013 Pirates are not the high-priced, uber-talented Red Sox or Dodgers, by any means, but they also aren’t the band of misfits they’ve been made out to be. Basically, if everything went as well as possible – and it nearly did, except for a dropped fly ball against St. Louis, a crucial Jordy Mercer error against the Reds, and a few other blips – the 2013 Pirates’ talent, if they played solid baseball and had no major injuries, should’ve been enough to beat out the many bad teams in the National League for a wildcard spot. And that’s what happened.

So I’m not outright surprised that the Pirates won 94 games in the National League in 2013 with Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano all having very, very good seasons as starting pitchers, Andrew McCutchen having an MVP-caliber year and Pedro Alvarez nearing the potential everyone saw in him when he was drafted. That the Pirates won 94 games in the regular season with Clint Hurdle as manager is more surprising to me, as it was only Hurdle’s second winning season as a major-league head coach in 11 tries, the only other one coming via a bonafide miracle finish to the 2007 season by the Colorado Rockies, who won nearly every game in September of that year before sweeping their way to a World Series they lost to Boston four games to none. 2-9 is not a good record at Yahtzee, let alone major-league managing, and there is a major reason that’s Clint Hurdle’s record as an MLB head coach: He’s a terrible manager.

Sure, he knows baseball. He’s clearly a nice guy, a good father, a good friend, and a positive presence that players like to have around. He also did a good job not freaking out when things were going wrong at times during the regular season, although at times more action was needed faster, like releasing Brandon Inge sooner or letting Jeff Locke “figure it out” in the minors rather than during a pennant race. But in the face of adversity, the aforementioned test of whether you’re in the right line of work, Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager. And it’s because he does not learn from his own mistakes; he does not know how to construct a lineup; and he plays favorites rather than making decisions based solely on winning.

Case in point: Numerous times this season, the veteran righty A.J. Burnett has struggled. Every pitcher not named Koufax or Kershaw will struggle numerous times in a season, and even those guys don’t get everyone out. That’s where a manager earns his salary: knowing when a pitcher either clearly doesn’t have anything on a given day, or when his “stuff” has run out and it’s time to pull him for a reliever before he gives up enough runs to thoroughly ruin his team’s chances of competing in the game at hand. But Clint Hurdle knows that A.J. Burnett never, ever wants to come out of a baseball game, and will let everyone know just that – including his teammates (when he yells at relievers to stop warming up), his coach (who he berates in public view), and unfortunate inanimate objects in the dugout. But A.J. Burnett is not the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates; Clint Hurdle is.

Numerous times this season, the Pirates have been either locked in a close game, or just barely hanging on to a shred of a chance of staying in a game in which they’re trailing, when A.J. Burnett makes it obvious, through his performance and the dead-eyed look on his face, that he’s got absolutely nothing left – no control, no chance of getting anyone out. And Clint Hurdle doesn’t act when that’s obvious. Nor does act when that lack of control (which gets Burnett behind in every count, resulting in walks and hit batters, and/or forcing him to sail fat pitches over the plate that get crushed) has resulted in a couple of runs. Nor does he act when that lack of control and velocity has resulted in a couple of runs *and* bases full of runners. Tonight, Hurdle – in game one of the Pirates’ first playoff series in 21 years – didn’t even act Burnett after had walked the Cardinals’ pitcher (who hadn’t walked all season), given up three hits, hit a batter and walked two more batters. He waited until Burnett, probably the first pitcher in history to do so, had given up seven runs in one inning of a playoff game to remove him for a talented middle reliever – Jeanmar Gomez – who promptly got three straight outs.

That whole sequence might be funny if it hadn’t happen with Burnett on the mound numerous times this season.

Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager.

Second example of Hurdle’s non-existent learning curve: Continuing to bat Justin Morneau, who has no home runs as a Pirate, cleanup. Tonight, like nearly every game he’s played in a Pittsburgh uniform, Morneau did not score a run or drive in a run. He has 0 homers and 3 RBI in his month as a Pirate. Marlon Byrd, who bats fifth (just after Morneau), has 4 homers and 17 RBI in his month with the Pirates. Pedro Alvarez, who bats sixth and homered tonight with no one on base, has 37 home runs this season.

Morneau was AL MVP in 2006 and I’m glad he plays for Pittsburgh. He’s a good hitter and has a keen ability to work counts and get on base. But he should not be batting fourth or even fifth, and has as much business batting cleanup as 2006 Cy Young winner Brandon Webb (who is long out of baseball entirely) has starting game two of the ongoing Pirates/Cardinals five-game series.

World Series champion Pedro Martinez, now a TBS analyst, had this to say after tonight’s game: “If I’m the starting pitcher for the other side, looking at the lineup, I’m actually laughing [because] when you see Justin Morneau struggle the last month completely – why not have Alvarez, your home-run leader, batting cleanup?”

The fans could see it. The announcers could see it. The analysts could see it after the game. But the manager of the team just really likes Justin Morneau, so…why not bat him cleanup in a playoff game?

Example number three: Clint Hurdle really likes veteran shortstop Clint Barmes. They’ve known each other since Hurdle’s eight seasons coaching the Rockies (seven of which were losing seasons), and are good friends.

Clint Barmes is one of the worst hitters in the major leagues, and in recent years it could be argued that Barmes has been *the* worst hitter in the major leagues, with an almost unbelievably awful .249 on-base percentage in 2013 to go with a .558 OPS and 14 walks. If a batter just stood there for 300 at-bats over the course of a season and never once swung the bat, he could get 14 walks.

Clint Barmes started game one of the National League Divisional Series tonight for the Pirates in St. Louis, presumably because he is a “plus defender.” His fielding percentage is pretty good, at .968, which is major-league good. It’s not Gold Glove good. He had a crucial run-scoring error tonight during Burnett’s ugly third inning, in which the starter recorded zero outs, and earlier in the game Barmes let a very catchable line drive go off his glove.

Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager. Young Jordy Mercer, whose fielding percentage in 2013 is .972 and whose on-base percentage is .336 to go with a god-like 1.152 OPS against lefties and .654 against righties (to Barmes’ .565), was on the bench tonight. There is no excuse for that, besides….say it with me, Clint Hurdle is a terrible manager.

Still, the Pirates probably would’ve lost tonight no matter the lineup, and no matter who was on the mound for them, because Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ starter, who won 19 games in the regular season, had incredible location and a beyond-devastating curveball. And it’s only one game of a five-game series that the Pirates could tie tomorrow with 22-year-old phenom Gerritt Cole on the mound.

But winning this series would be a lot easier, seemingly, with you, me, my 3-year-old, your grandmother, Pedro Martinez, or nearly anyone coaching the Pirates tomorrow than Clint Hurdle. Because his in-game decisions, clearly and seemingly never-endingly, are inexplicably based (too often) on something other than trying to win the game: keeping a pitcher “stretched out,” trying to “get the bullpen some innings,” not wanting A.J. Burnett to freak out, trying to make friends with Justin Morneau, trying to keep a friendship with Clint Barmes, not wanting Gerritt Cole (a big, strong, super-talented 22-year-old) to get tired, when he’d have been going on nearly double his normal rest had he pitched tonight instead of the 36-year-old Burnett, who was going on less rest.

Maybe someday Clint will learn, but unfortunately he probably won’t change any of his ways before this series ends, and unfortunately the fact that the Pirates turned things around with him at the helm means he can probably manage them for the rest of his life if he wants. I just hope Pittsburgh wins this series despite Hurdle’s refusal to learn from his own mistakes, because they certainly can. They certainly won a lot of games in the regular season despite of that refusal.

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