Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has been a key part of one of baseball's best stories so far this season, leading the long-suffering Bucs to the .500 mark and beyond in his first campaign with Pittsburgh. He's drawn much-deserved praise, and if the season ended today, he'd probably win the National League Manager of the Year thanks to the team's success against long odds in 2011.
Coming off a 2-5 road trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia in which Hurdle used All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan just twice, however, the luster might be coming off just a bit. The Pirates lost all five games Hanrahan sat out, including three that went to extra innings. Given Hanrahan's dominance this season, it's reasonable to wonder whether Hurdle could have used him more effectively.
On July 24 against the Cardinals, Hanrahan pitched a scoreless ninth inning to keep the Pirates in a game they eventually won on a sacrifice fly from Chase d'Arnaud in the 10th. Hurdle's use of his closer in a non-save situation ensured Pittsburgh kept three of St. Louis' best hitters, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Colby Rasmus, off the board.
Could a similar strategy have yielded a happy ending for the Pirates on the road? Let's throw out the Bucs' 10-3 and 7-4 losses against the Phillies and examine the three close ones.
July 26: Braves 4, Pirates 3 - 19 innings. This historic game will be remembered far more for umpire Jerry Meals' blown call at home plate that allowed Julio Lugo to score the winning run for Atlanta than Hurdle's use of Hanrahan, and for that reason alone, perhaps it's hard to be critical of his decision to leave his closer in the bullpen. Technically, Hurdle's strategy of leaving a long man in the game was working perfectly, as reliever Daniel McCutchen got Scott Proctor to tap into the should-have-been 5-2 putout at home. Furthermore, given the ineptitude of the Pirates lineup on this particular night (the Pirates didn't score after second inning), it stood to reason the game might go a few more innings, and the last thing Hurdle would have wanted was to use a position player to pitch because he brought Hanrahan, his last available reliever, into the game too soon. Though this loss was probably the toughest of the three to swallow and will leave many fans wondering "what if?" for a while, it's hard to hang too much of it on the manager.
July 27: Braves 2 Pirates 1 - 10 innings. With the bullpen in tatters from the long game the night before, starter Paul Maholm picked the Bucs up in a big way in this one, tossing seven innings of one-run ball before turning things over to the relief corps. Tony Watson pitched a scoreless eighth and Jose Veras a scoreless ninth before Chris Leroux, fresh up from Triple-A Indianapolis, was called in for the 10th. He recorded just one out and loaded the bases before surrendering the game-winning single to Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, and unlike the night before, there's plenty of reason to wonder why Hanrahan wasn't used.
Ultimately, the game wasn't going to go on very long. The Pirates simply didn't have enough relievers available for another long battle into the warm Georgia morning. If the Pirates were going to win, they would have had to end the game quickly, and the easiest way to do that would have been to use their best reliever in the 10th inning against one of the two best teams in the National League on the road. Had the Pirates failed to score with Hanrahan in the game, then at least they'd given it their best shot. Instead, Hurdle ran out an overmatched reliever, and it cost the Bucs the game.
July 31: Phillies 6 Pirates 5 - 10 innings. As Michael Sanserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, Hurdle considered using Hanrahan before extra frames in this one, after seven strong innings from Jeff Karstens had staked the Pirates to a 5-3 lead in the eighth.
When Karstens left the game before the start of the eighth inning, things began to unravel.
Reliever Joe Beimel gave up a double to Howard before Veras entered the game. Hurdle said he and pitching coach Ray Searage talked about sending closer Joel Hanrahan in to pitch a four-out save before Veras pitched to Ibanez.
"We shot it down immediately," Hurdle said. "He just did it three days ago, and we said 'No. Not that quick.'"
Veras subsequently gave up a two-run homer to Raul Ibanez to tie the game, and Tony Watson lost the game in the 10th by giving up an Ibanez double that scored Hunter Pence.
While Hurdle was correct in noting Hanrahan had pitched a four-out save in the Pirates' 3-1 win against Atlanta Thursday, the reliever had thrown just 18 pitches in that one, and by Sunday was on two days' rest. Coming in to get an extra out probably wouldn't have been much of a strain on his arm, so choosing to leave him on the bench at that point for that reason seems a little questionable.
To make matters worse, Hurdle didn't even bring in Hanrahan for extra innings. He instead went with a rookie who, like Leroux against the Braves Wednesday night, was overmatched against the Phillies' murderous lineup on the road. Philadelphia made quick work of him, and just like that, the Pirates had a fifth loss in six days. As in Atlanta, the Pirates best strategy would probably have been to end the game quickly, stopping the Phillies by any means necessary and worrying about what would happen post-Hanrahan if the situation arose.
Ultimately, the players play the game, and their failures are on them first and foremost. That said, Hurdle's job is to put his players in the best position to succeed, and it's easy to argue that in at least two road trip's five losses, he failed to do that by leaving Hanrahan in the bullpen. While Hurdle is not solely responsible for the losses, he should share at least some of the blame, much as he's shared in the credit due for what has been a solid season to this point.