Bullpen struggles as Cutch-less Pirates fall
Life without Andrew McCutchen began Tuesday, and it went as expected for the Pirates: Life was difficult.
The Pirates do not know how long they will be without the reigning National League MVP after he tore rib cartilage Sunday in Arizona. What they know following a 6-3 loss to the Miami Marlins on Tuesday is they have a much slimmer margin for error.
The Pirates need other lineup complements to step up, better defensive play and improved pitching to weather the loss of McCutchen and remain in the postseason race. They received little of those as they returned to PNC Park.
The Pirates' bats mostly were quiet, and the Marlins scored five times off an embattled bullpen in the eighth inning. It was the 18th blown save by the Pirates, matching Colorado for the National League lead.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said one of his few consistent relievers, Tony Watson, was not available.
“We didn't meet the demands of the game in the eighth inning,” Hurdle said. “We just didn't get the things done we needed to get done.”
With one out and runners on first and second in the eighth, Justin Wilson relieved Jared Hughes (6-3). Wilson's struggles continued as he allowed a pinch-hit single to Jeff Baker to load the bases. Wilson then walked Marcell Ozuna to force in Giancarlo Stanton, tying the score at 2-2. Wilson was not close with four of his five pitches to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the following batter, walking him to force in Casey McGehee and give the Marlins a 3-2 lead.
Wilson was pulled and left the field to a cascade of boos. His walk rate increased to 5.3 walks per nine innings, and his ERA rose to 4.89.
Jeanmar Gomez relieved Wilson and allowed the Marlins' lead to balloon. He surrendered an RBI single to Adeiny Hechavarria and an RBI double to Christian Yelich. The Marlins led 6-2 after the inning.
“You can't let it bring you down,” Hughes said. “It's really big to stay positive and go out there tomorrow.”
While the bullpen struggled, runs also were harder to come by without McCutchen anchoring the lineup.
It's difficult to overstate how critical the loss of McCutchen is. McCutchen entered Tuesday leading the club in average (.311), on-base percentage (.411) and slugging percentage (.536), home runs (17), runs (64), RBIs (67) and walks (68).
The Pirates will need other players such as Gaby Sanchez to step up.
Sanchez stranded Josh Harrison at second in the sixth inning after Harrison doubled. After crushing left-handed pitching for the majority of his career, Sanchez entered batting just .253 against lefties.
“This has been an outlier year for him against left-handed pitching,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates need more from Gregory Polanco.
The prized rookie, who entered having struggled against left-handed pitching (.172 average), dropped to seventh in the order against lefties. Polanco offered some encouragement as he slashed a fastball from left-handed starter Brad Hand for a run-scoring single that gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead in the seventh. The hit knocked Hand from the game.
Hand allowed just one other run, when Jordy Mercer doubled home Starling Marte in the third. Marte returned from a concussion Tuesday and took McCutchen's place in center field.
More than anything, the Pirates need better starting pitching.
Charlie Morton responded with a quality effort, allowing one run over seven innings. He allowed six hits, walked four and struck out four. Morton generated 11 groundouts.
But the Pirates will need more than one player to step up in McCutchen's absence. They will need better collective efforts while missing perhaps the best player in the National League.