Still One Win to Go (NLDS Game Four: Cardinals 2, Pirates 1)

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Part of me wants to start this by saying “Game three was all about Michael Wacha.” The kid is barely of legal drinking age, in his rookie season, in his postseason debut, and for 7 innings was not only painting corners with 97-mph fastballs but literally no-hitting the Pirates. He was amazing and is probably on the way to an amazing career.

But the Pirates, who would’ve won their first postseason series in 34 years with a victory today against the Cardinals at home in Pittsburgh, had the pitching to hang with Wacha, and did not use it correctly.

Charlie Morton, who famously had been crushed by St. Louis hitting throughout his career coming into this huge game, had a great curveball and looked sharp as hell through four innings. He played well enough for the Bucs to win, and should be proud. With the score tied 0-0, Morton struggled in the fifth, but…once again, with his starting pitcher clearly on the verge of falling apart and trouble brewing, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle refused to warm anyone up. Not during the fifth, which Morton barely got out of with two runners in scoring position, and not after the fifth, which ended with the score still tied 0-0.

Hurdle should’ve had someone ready to go in the sixth if Morton showed his control was gone. That would’ve been a no-brainer. It’s the playoffs, and Morton hasn’t won against the Cardinals in years, so why not take the safe route knowing your bullpen has been so strong all year?

But even after Morton walked Carlos Beltran on four pitches, none of which were close, to start the sixth, Hurdle did nothing. And the next batter, Matt Holliday, hit a two-run homer to center field. 2-0 Cardinals. Justin Wilson, the Pirates’ absurdly under-utilized flame-throwing reliever, should’ve been ready to pitch to Holliday, but Hurdle somehow let Morton stay in the game long enough to not only give up the two-run homer to Holliday but another four-pitch walk.

Morton did get out of the sixth with no further damage, but you don’t take a pitcher (of Morton’s caliber, especially) clearly losing control out of a playoff game *after* damage has been done. You have someone warming up when trouble is brewing, and it had been in the fifth.

Cardinals coach Mike Matheny smartly took out his young starter, Wacha, in the eigth immediately after it was clear he’d lost a step. After Wacha gave up a home run to red-hot Pedro Alvarez and a walk to Russell Martin (his second of the day), Matheny had seen enough and went to Carlos Martinez in relief.

Then the impossible, the unthinkable, the insane happened: Josh Harrison, pinch running for Martin, was given the green light to steal second. #1 Harrison represented the third Pirate baserunner of the game, and the Bucs only had five outs remaining, down one. #2 Harrison is not exceptionally fast, nor is he an accomplished base stealer. #3 Clint Hurdle is a terrible in-game manager.

Harrison was out by a mile, pinch-hitter Jose Tabata struck out, and the threat was over, along with the inning.

Two sentences we never should’ve heard today: “Morton gives up his second four-pitch walk” and “Harrison caught stealing.” But apparently Hurdle thinks Harrison is Rickey Henderson and Morton is Justin Verlander.

The Cardinals do not have a remarkable bullpen. Patience could’ve seen the Pirates come back to win in the bottom of the ninth, but again Clint Hurdle’s managing bit Pittsburgh in the ass. After Neil Walker walked with two outs, probable NL MVP-winner Andrew McCutchen stood in and took three straight balls from Trevor Rosenthal. With Marlon Byrd on deck, McCutchen laid off a close fastball, took first base, and then scored the winning run on a double by Marlon Byrd. Or…

Wait, nevermind – Clint Hurdle was stupidly still batting Justin Morneau cleanup, despite his lack of run production as a Pirate (0 HR, 3 RBI in 29 games) and the recent success of Marlon Byrd (4 HR, 22 RBI a Pirate) and Pedro Alvarez (3 HR, 5 RBI in the NLDS alone). So McCutchen, who almost certainly would’ve been more patient with power-hitting Byrd on deck, chased a borderline 3-1 pitch and popped out to end the game.

The series goes to St. Louis and the Pirates have one more chance to take it. But this one hurts. Despite Wacha’s gem, Pittsburgh was in great position to win game three in the 8th and 9th and was inexcusably done in, partly, by Clint Hurdle’s mismanaging.

There’s still a chance to win the series, but Hurdle has two big moves he simply *has* to make before Wednesday: Start Gerrit Cole, no matter what it’d do to A.J. Burnett’s ego, and move Marlon Byrd to cleanup. Coaching is about putting your team in the best position to win. Cole is Pittsburgh’s best available starter, and Byrd – or Pedro Alvarez, with 3 HR and 5 RBI in the series to Morneau’s 0 and 0 – is the best available cleanup hitter.

As of a few minutes after the game three loss, Hurdle has wisely chosen to go with Cole to start game five. Now for the cleanup hitter situation….

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