Kovacevic: Never forget where the real fault lies


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The Cardinals' Kolten Wong completes his triple in the 10th inning Wednesday night at PNC Park. - AP

This was Clint Hurdle's fault, right?

He pulls Jameson Taillon after seven smooth innings, a reasonable pitch count of 85, and a two-run lead blew up within minutes. There was no need to mess with success and, if not for this manager, the Pirates wouldn't have wound up losing, 5-4 in 10 innings, Wednesday night at PNC Park.

Except ...

Except that it was Taillon's second start of the season, he'd just given up a leadoff home run in the seventh, exactly as had happened when it all went awry in the opener last week in Cincinnati, and all concerned had expressed a hope he'd do nothing more than overcome this obstacle right in front of him. Which he did. After Paul DeJong's home run opened this seventh inning, Taillon dug deeper for a groundout, flyout and the sweetest of sliders to freeze Dexter Fowler.

[caption id="attachment_801066" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Jameson Taillon Jameson Taillon pitches Wednesday night at PNC Park. - AP[/caption]

"That's a tough question," Taillon would diplomatically reply when asked if he could have continued. "With those two guys in the back end of our pen, I definitely understood it. I felt fresh and stuff, my pitch count was at a good place, but I didn't fight back at all on that. More nights than not, those guys on the back end are taking care of us."

Yep. That was it.

Hurdle saw it the same way, saying, "I think he felt like he competed and got us to a very good spot. That was my feeling. The last time out, he went into the seventh and we weren’t able to finish it. This time, he finished the seventh, and I think we all felt confident moving forward from there."

Hm. I'm good with that explanation from both of them. Not Hurdle's fault. Definitely not Taillon's fault.

Must've been Keone Kela's fault, then:

Because, upon taking the ball for the eighth, he walked Kolten Wong on four pitches, threw ball one to Harrison Bader, then that center-square meatball above that sailed into the St. Louis bullpen to tie the score, 3-3.

"It's not the way I wanted that to go, obviously," Kela would tell me much later.

Or maybe it was Nick Burdi's fault. He came on in the 10th, coughed up a Wong triple, a walk and a go-ahead single to Tyler O'Neill.

Or maybe it was Francisco Liriano's fault. He took over for Burdi, threw a run-conceding wild pitch and didn't bother to cover the plate as Bader sprinted home, drawing visible exasperation from Francisco Cervelli.

Or maybe it was the bats as a collective. The Pirates managed one whole hit after the fourth inning and, even when they were getting aboard, they'd go a combined 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

We have enough culprits up there?

Should this have been presented as a checklist?

Well, if I'd gone with a multiple-choice format for this column, my checkmark still would have gone somewhere else entirely: It'd have been the entirety of the bottom of the 10th, when the Pirates were undone by their real underlying problems.

The St. Louis bullpen seemed exceedingly willing to give the game right back. Cervelli singled and, after an out, two more walks loaded the bases, and coming up to bat were ... JB Shuck, Erik Gonzalez and Pablo Reyes.

Oh, really.

Shuck worked a five-pitch walk, to his credit, to cut the deficit to 5-4. Gonzalez somehow fell right into an 0-2 count, then popped up, and Reyes grounded out to short to end it.

"It was frustrating," Gonzalez would tell me. "We wish it ended better."

I'll bet Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington wish it had ended better, as well. They genuinely hope to win. They just don't prioritize it over profit and, in the case of baseball operations, they just don't know what they're doing in terms of drafting and developing talent internally. If they were either of those things, they'd never in good conscience enter a season with Shuck, a 31-year-old journeyman who spent half of last summer in the Pacific Coast League; Gonzalez, a 27-year-old career backup who's never earned more than 136 at-bats in any big-league season; and Reyes, a scrappy but severely limited 25-year-old utilityman who emerged from Rene Gayo's Latin American system that's bailed out the miserable drafting for a decade-plus.

That's what happens, my friends. I always prefer to dig right to the root, and that's the core.

Oh, and this:

That's Paul Goldschmidt, the superb slugging first baseman, impressively tracking down Gonzalez's popup into foul territory, then firing back to the plate to force Jung Ho Kang back to third and prevent the tying run. And he's wearing that uniform because the Cardinals, based in a market virtually the same size as Pittsburgh and home to one fewer major-league franchise, acquired him at Christmas and signed him to a five-year, $130 million contract.

That's more than double the size of the Pirates' largest contract ever, which, yeah, is still Jason Kendall's $60 million extension nearly 20 years ago.

A passion and priority for winning aren't everything, but they matter. Payroll isn't everything, but it matters. The drafting/developing isn't everything, but it matters a hell of a lot when the first two aren't there.

Looking to lay blame?

Look no further. Ever. All else is noise.

• I know, I know, if only they'd had a healthy Lonnie Chisenhall ...

• The Pirates have a total of two of their own first-round picks on the current roster: One, of course, is Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 who was an absolute can't-miss selected between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The other is Kevin Newman, the team's top pick in 2015. He's yet to make a plate appearance this season and, in the fateful 10th inning of this game, he was finally used ... as a pinch-runner.

• It's not easy to dislike Gonzalez, I'll give him that much. He's as personable as they come.

His evening got off to an uplifting start with this rangy gem in the first inning ...

... then grew in the second with this clutch triple:

I asked if maybe he's settling a bit.

"I think so. It's easier now," he answered softly. "Everything is new. I'm trying so hard. I just want to help."

• That wasn't some nobody the Pirates hit through the early going. Miles Mikolas was among Major League Baseball's top handful of pitchers in 2018 at 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA that ranked seventh of all starters. So banging three runs on seven hits off him in five innings ... that's not small for a lineup of which so little is expected.

But then ... poof!

• Nothing about Taillon's night was more impressive than the bonus bite on his slider:

• It's crazy early, so it shouldn't matter at all that the Brewers, the 2018 Central champs, are off to a 6-1 start. But it also might.

• I'm not sold on the bullpen, but neither am I sold that it's some failure. Richard Rodriguez gave up a terribly untimely home run in Cincinnati, and Kela did likewise here. The blown lead Monday was all about miserable infield defense.

• That said, blown leads are alarming: The Pirates were 65-6 in 2018 when leading after six innings, and they've already got three such losses through four games. They were 69-3 in 2018 when leading after seven innings, and there are already two of those.

• Piling on here, they're batting .207 as a team with three home runs and a dozen extra-base hits in 140 at-bats. Meanwhile, the starting pitchers have a 1.88 ERA. If they could maybe meet at .220/2.20, this might work.

• Way too much country music's being played at PNC Park. Seriously. This is Pittsburgh. Play Foghat or go home.

Hunter Homistek and I address:

• I'll be at the hockey rink Thursday night. If 'Cotton-Eye Joe' doesn't count as country -- and I don't think it does -- it'll be a safe zone.

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