ATLANTA -- One of Pirates’ fans favorite pastimes, especially this season, is to second-guess Clint Hurdle’s bullpen management.
It’s been easy to do because so many of his moves he has made have backfired. However, it hasn’t always been fair to question the manager of a team with a relievers’ ERA of 5.50, especially when most of the problem has stemmed from a lack of talent rather than poor decision making.
However, it was easy to second guess Hurdle on Wednesday night when the Pirates’ losing streak reached six games as they dropped an 8-7 decision to the Braves in 11 innings. The Pirates (30-37) fell into last place in the National League Central with their 17th loss in 23 games as they got walked off for the first time this season.
Michael Feliz (2-3) allowed the game-winning hit when Ozzie Albies lined a double to deep center field with none out in the 11th to score Austin Riley, who was hit by a pitch on the right wrist to begin the inning.
Yet when Hurdle called on Feliz to begin the 10th inning, it was the best option he had. Not that Feliz is a good option, mind you, but he was considering Geoff Hartlieb and Dovydas Neverauskas were the other two relievers available. Pretty much pick your poison at that point.
What made the difference in the game, though, was the way Hurdle handled the eighth and ninth innings.
He called on Felipe Vazquez to start the eighth with the score tied at 6, an unusual strategy.
Then after Josh Bell hit a home run in the top of ninth to put the Pirates in front 7-6, Hurdle went with Kyle Crick in the bottom of the inning. Taking a closer out in the ninth inning with a lead and replacing him with his set-up man was quite the curious decision.
Crick gave up a leadoff home run to Riley, the ball just eluded a leaping Starling Marte, that sent the game to extra innings.
Hurdle had his reasons for the way he deployed his two best relievers, even if they were easily questioned.
He said he wanted Vazquez to get work after having not pitched since last Thursday. Yet Hurdle also never planned to use Vazquez for more than an inning, even though he kept his pitch count to a reasonable 17 in the eighth.
“He had not pitched in (six) days and we wanted to get him a couple of different looks,” Hurdle said. “He hadn’t been on the mound and he’s had his own set of struggles, so to put him back out there and complicate things is not the collateral damage we wanted from that. He needs to pitch a clean inning and not go back out.”
Crick has just two saves in his four-year career and both came last season. However, he said a surprise opportunity had nothing to do with blowing the save or giving up his second home run to Riley, the rookie sensation, in the span of eight days.
“When you’re in the bullpen, you have to ready for anything,” Crick said.
The home runs to Riley are the only ones Crick has allowed in 22 1/3 innings this season.
Mitch Keller started for the Pirates and the highly regarded prospect did not seem any more ready to pitch in the minor league in his second outing than he did in his major-league debut on Memorial Day.
Keller was tagged for six runs and 10 hits in three innings. He also gave up six runs in his debut on May 27 against the Reds at Cincinnati, though they all came in the first inning. He finished that outing with three scoreless innings before being pulled following the fourth.
The scoring was more spread out this time as the Braves plated three runs in the first inning while batting around then one in the second and two in the third to take a 6-2 lead.
The biggest hit was a two-run triple by Riley in the first.
Keller’s ERA stands at 15.43 after giving up 13 runs in seven innings. In 11 starts with Class AAA Indianapolis this season, he has gone 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA in 11 starts. Furthermore, he had 13 strikeouts in five innings in his last outing for Indy.
When I asked if the contrasting outings showed the gulf between the major leagues and Class AAA, he gave a very succinct answer.
“Yes,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s 10 hits and six runs. It’s not about feelings up here. It’s about trying to find a win.”
Keller got taken off the hook for the loss as the Pirates rallied from a 6-2 deficit. Yet he was not pleased with his outing.
“My job is to give my team a chance to win and I didn’t give us very much of a chance,” Keller said when I asked if rough outings are part of the learning process for a rookie.
• Jordan Lyles, right-hander, left hamstring tightness Monday, is on the 10-day DL.
• Trevor Williams, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with a right side strain. He is expected to make a rehab start Thursday for Class AAA Indianapolis.
• Francisco Cervelli, catcher, is on the seven-day concussion IL and won't rejoin the team on this trip.
• Jameson Taillon, right-hander, is on the 60-day IL with a right elbow flexor tendon strain and is rehabbing in Bradenton, Fla.
• Keone Kela, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right shoulder inflammation and is rehabbing in Bradenton.
• Chris Stratton, right-hander, is on the 10-day IL with right side discomfort. He began a rehab assignment with Indianapolis on Tuesday night, allowing one run in two innings.
• Rookie Davis, right-hander, is on the 10-day DL with a right middle finger blister.
• Erik Gonzalez, shortstop, is on the 60-day IL with a left clavicle fracture.
• Nick Burdi, relief pitcher, is on the 60-day IL with right elbow/pain caused by a nerve problem and is rehabbing in Bradenton.
• Lonnie Chisenhall, outfielder, is on the 60-day IL with a left calf strain and is currently rehabbing at his home in North Carolina.
The four-game series is set to conclude at 12:10 Thursday with Joe Musgrove (4-6, 4.40) facing Julio Teheran (4-4, 3.03). Musgrove will be pitching on two days of rest after being ejected the first inning of Monday night's series opener. Teheran has not lost in his past seven starts, going 2-0 with a 0.70 ERA. I will be on the coverage. The clubhouse opens to the media at 9:30 a.m.
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