PITTSBURGH — There was an uneasy feeling early Friday afternoon in Pirates manager Clint Hurdle’s office and the players’ clubhouse outside of it. Turning the page from an emotional five-game series against their chief National League Central competition to an NL West also-ran, the Bucs could have been in for a letdown.
Would they also let their guard down? Hurdle advised against it.
“This team can jump up and bite you,” he said of the Rockies, who came to town after enduring a four-game sweep in Atlanta during which their relievers had to labor through 16 2/3 innings. “Their bullpen took on a tremendous workload, so any damage we can do early to make them go to the bullpen will be to our benefit.”
The Bucs weren’t able to damage Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin early or late, as the Rockies jumped them, 4-2, in front of a sold-out PNC Park crowd of 37,487 to take a bite out of their division lead, down to a half-game after St. Louis’ triumph in Cincinnati.
It was mostly the doing of Chacin, who picked up his 10th win by going eight innings and allowing six hits — none after Russell Martin’s leadoff single in the fourth.
“His command was electric,” said Hurdle, duly impressed by the 25-year-old Venezuelan brought into the Colorado organization as a 16-year-old when Hurdle was in the middle of his tenure as Rockies manager. “He threw everything for strikes. Good change of speeds, changeup, slow breaking ball, the slider was in play. So he just dotted the glove up for eight innings.”
Gerrit Cole, the rookie righty opposite Chacin, has faced more than his share of blue-chip pitching opponents — from Tim Lincecum to Zack Greinke to Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels — but no one gave him as tough a battle.
The Pirates were partly responsible for that, by hitting balls too hard while Chacin was still vulnerable. He already gave up six hits before there was a single out in the fourth, but the Bucs could not max out their chances, with some of their hardest-hit balls turning into two outs.
Garrett Jones smashed into double plays in the second and fourth innings, both after Martin led off by reaching base.
“We hit some balls, but right at guys. Luck wasn’t on our side,” said Jones, before quickly ensuring Chacin got proper credit. “He pitched a good game. Kept the ball down, hit the corners. Once he settled in, he wasn’t giving us hitters a lot of pitches to drive.”
Cole wanted that point understood. He took his fifth loss in his last six decisions, but post-game questions about his own performance appeared to slightly annoy him.
“I just felt like we played a good game. Just didn’t string together hits at the right time,” he said at one point, very patiently. “I feel like they got us for one night. I did everything I could to minimize the damage. At the point, they had three hits and we had six. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
Entering the sixth, Cole was in a 1-1 deadlock. Neither he nor the tie survived that inning.
Two runners were already on base with one out for Troy Tulowitzki, who lined a solo homer in the second and walked in the fourth.
That presented a challenge Cole wanted to meet.
“Yeah … I had seen Tulowitzki [two] times and felt comfortable facing him and [No. 5 hitter Todd] Helton again,” Cole said. “Definitely, I was anxious to face Tulowitzki and Helton again with an opportunity to get a double play.”
However, Hurdle replaced Cole with left-hander Justin Wilson, unconventional strategy that proved hard to question, even though the righty-hitting Tulowitzki “delivered” a tie-breaking single.
“Willie comes in and he gets out of those jams so many times,” Cole said.
This time, Tulowitzki managed a high chopper 25 feet to the right of the mound, the blind spot for first basemen. It would have been a rather routine play, Wilson to Jones. But when Jones instead charged for the ball, he had no one to throw it to, and Dexter Fowler scored from third to make it 2-1 as Corey Dickerson advanced to second.
Was there a chance for Wilson to field the ball and throw to Jones?
“Possibly. I’d have to look at it on tape,” Hurdle said. “Once it was up in the air, the run’s going to score no matter what. We might get the out. That might have shortened the inning.”
From there, matters became worse. A wild pitch moved up both runners, and they scored on Helton’s sharp single up the middle for a 4-1 lead.
Cole was charged with three hits and as many runs, all earned, in 5 1/3 innings with two walks and six strikeouts.
The rarity of the Pirates not allowing a home run during their long set with St. Louis had been overlooked. Thus, when Tulowitzki gave Colorado a 1-0 lead, he did so with the visitors’ first PNC Park homer in eight games. Pittsburgh hurlers had gone 69 innings without letting anyone go yard here.
The Bucs managed to only tie it in the third because Andrew McCutchen is in one of his zones when he hits the ball too hard. Starling Marte’s infield single and Neil Walker’s second double of the game had men on second and third in the third inning for McCutchen, who stung a ball so fiercely over second baseman DJ LeMahieu’s glove into right field that Walker couldn’t even think about scoring, although Marte did jog in from third to tie it at 1.
McCutchen drilled another pitch in the ninth, doubling to center field off Rockies closer Rex Brothers and scoring on a Pedro Alvarez double.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pittsburgh Pirates Move Up to No.1