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Struggling McCutchen angry at himself after being benched Tuesday

| Wednesday, May 17, 2017, 7:15 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andre McCutchen hits a single against the Nationals in the first inning Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen dives back to first base against the Nationals in the first inning Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' David Freese and Andrew McCutchen celebrate with Josh Bell after Bell's three-run home run against the Nationals in the sixth inning Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen leads off second base against the Nationals in the first inning Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at PNC Park.

The anger and frustration Andrew McCutchen felt when he was benched as part of a double-switch during Tuesday's game against the Washington Nationals were still there the next morning.

So, for two hours under a hot sun Wednesday afternoon, McCutchen stood in the batting cage and punished baseballs.

An early round of batting practice might not snap McCutchen out of his deep batting funk. It certainly won't drown out the questions from Pirates fans and industry insiders who wonder if the former MVP has lost his game.

If nothing else, the familiar feel of bat striking ball helped McCutchen cope with the sting that comes with being told to take a seat in the late innings of a close game.

"It was a move that 'had to be made,' and it wouldn't have been made if I'd gotten on base," McCutchen said. "Did I get (angry) about it? Yeah, I got (angry) — at myself, not at management. I got (angry) at myself because I know I'm better than that. I'm not a double-switch guy, regardless. But I'm also not a .200 hitter, either."

Through Tuesday, McCutchen had a .215 batting average on balls in play, which was the third-lowest mark in the majors. That suggests he's been the victim of some bad luck.

"I'm doing what I want to do. It's just a matter of things falling," McCutchen said. "Sometimes, you have the right approach and things just work out for you. It's all about getting yourself in a good spot, and I feel like I'm progressing toward that good spot."

Facing Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, McCutchen squared up the ball but hit fly outs in his first three at-bats.

In the seventh inning, the Pirates scored three runs to pull within 6-4. With a runner on third base, McCutchen stuck out swinging to end the rally.

Manager Clint Hurdle then removed McCutchen from the game as part of a double switch. Jose Osuna, who entered as a pinch-hitter and delivered an RBI single in the seventh, stayed in to play left field. Adam Frazier replaced McCutchen in center.

No long ago, it would have been laughable to suggest switching out McCutchen in the late innings of a two-run game.

Yet, this version of McCutchen is batting .206 with a .670 OPS and is on pace for 121 strikeouts. Remember how badly he scuffled in the first half of last season? His performance at this point is much worse than it was a year ago: After 39 games in 2016, he was batting .248 with an .805 OPS.

"Right now, I'm giving them an excuse to make those moves," McCutchen said. "If I'm doing my job, if I'm getting on base or whatever, I'm not giving them an excuse to make that move. You think that's going to happen if I'm hitting .300? No, of course not. It all boils down to the fact that I'm hitting .200. That's it."

Hurdle, however, offered a different take.

"That move needed to be made to give us the best chance to win the game, independent of how he is swinging the bat," Hurdle said.

Hurdle said he knew Osuna, who was in the No. 9 spot, would get another at-bat. If McCutchen stayed in the game, Osuna's spot would go to a relief pitcher, then later to either Chris Stewart or Gift Ngoepe as a pinch-hitter.

"There was no guarantee we'd get to (McCutchen's No. 3 spot) again," Hurdle said. "So that's why he was taken out."

Then again, the Pirates would have needed McCutchen's spot to come up again to have any chance to win.

With two outs and the Pirates trailing 8-4 in the ninth inning, Osuna singled and Frazier doubled. Josh Harrison struck out to end the game — with Stewart, who would have pinch hit in what was McCutchen's spot, standing on deck.

Hurdle said he explained the move to McCutchen in the dugout but refused to say how McCutchen reacted.

"That move needs to be made," Hurdle said. "I've seen (Tony) LaRussa make it with (Albert) Pujols. That doesn't make it right, but it needs to be made."

Put aside the debate about whether the double-switch was good strategy. It was the latest in a line of little humiliations for McCutchen, a nine-year veteran, five-time All-Star and erstwhile face of the Pirates franchise. Last winter, the front office tried to trade him. This spring, he was bounced out of center field. Now, he's been sent to the bench.

"I'm not going to focus on it, because what does that create?" McCutchen said. "That creates nothing. That creates a separation. All that creates is something that doesn't need to be created in a clubhouse, on a team or in a dugout. So, I'm not going to go there."

Notes: Gregory Polanco was placed on the 10-day disabled list, retroactive to Monday, with a sore left hamstring. Outfielder Danny Ortiz was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis. ... Jameson Taillon's pathology report confirmed he had testicular cancer. He will be re-evaluated next week and was cleared to play catch and do light cardio workouts. There is no timetable for when he will return to game action. ... Josh Harrison was given a scheduled day off Wednesday. Harrison said he's healthy. ... Right-hander Nick Kingham, who's on the way back from Tommy John surgery, rejoined Indy's rotation.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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