Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Five thoughts on the Pirates' slump
The Pirates are enduring their most disheartening stretch of the season, having lost nine of their past 11 games to slip to six games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
Their 8-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs Tuesday night at PNC Park was as disappointing as any, not just because of how they handled Anthony Rizzo but more so of how they blew a 3-0 lead.
1. Inside scoop
Pirates starter Nick Kingham said his intention was to pitch Rizzo inside, not to hit him in retaliation for his takeout slide of catcher Elias Diaz on Memorial Day.
"He's a good hitter. He's on top of the plate. We were just going to go in on him," Kingham said. "If it hit him, it hit him. We weren't trying to do anything. My approach was just to get him out, get him to swing and get him out."
Rizzo doubled to right in the first, popped out to short in the fourth and was intentionally walked by Kingham in the fifth.
"I'm not going to not pitch to a guy because of the risk of hitting him," Kingham said. "I feel like, hopefully, if I did hit him it would just glance him. I wasn't just trying to do anything. Hopefully, the umpires would know that, too. That's where I wanted to pitch him."
My guess is that the Pirates avoided beaning Rizzo because of the controversy caused by his slide, the national attention it drew and the phone call from MLB admitting that it got the call wrong.
2. Maddon mocks Bucs
Joe Maddon not only blamed Diaz for not properly getting out of Rizzo's way, but the Cubs manager mocked the Pirates after they failed to plunk Rizzo in retribution.
"Interesting game…," Maddon said. "They tried."
Maddon took delight in comparing Rizzo's villain status at PNC Park to that of Jake Arrieta, who struck out 11 Pirates in a four-hit shutout in the 2015 wild-card playoff game.
Maddon also took pride in how Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras, who batted one spot behind Rizzo, handled the Pirates hitting him twice.
"I loved his reaction. Smiled and ran to first base," Maddon said. "My god, do I love him. That's also another component that makes him the best catcher in baseball."
This is why you retaliate when a division opponent has a player take out your catcher, especially when it's the Cubs.
3. Learning experience
Part of the problem is that the Pirates pitchers who dealt with the Rizzo fallout — Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez, Kingham, Edgar Santana and Michael Feliz — are young.
A veteran like George Kontos would have plunked Rizzo and ended the controversy instead of allowing it to carry over.
The Pirates cut ties with Kontos, who was 2-3, with a 5.03 ERA in 19 2/3 innings of relief, to make room for Austin Meadows when Starling Marte went on the 10-day disabled list.
It was the right move, but that doesn't mean it didn't have ramifications. Kontos was the veteran leader of a young bullpen, and that leadership was missing against the Cubs.
And it's only been amplified by the struggles of Feliz, who is now 0-2, with a 5.87 ERA in 23 innings of relief. Over the last seven games, Feliz has a 13.50 ERA, allowing seven hits and nine earned runs in six innings, with six strikeouts, four walks and a hit batter.
4. Meadows plays right, hits lefties
Meadows started in right field, in place of Gregory Polanco, and has now played all three outfield spots at PNC Park.
Meadows said he's "really comfortable in all three right now" and credited Marte and outfield coach Kimera Bartee for properly positioning him to pull side and opposite field.
So I asked Meadows which is more challenging, the North Side Notch in left or the Clemente Wall in right?
"That's a tough one," Meadows said. "They're both unique in their own way. For me, it's just getting the reps, not making it challenging for myself and just getting prepared for it."
To say Clint Hurdle is impressed by Meadows would be an understatement. The Pirates manager appears to be blown away by his head discipline at the plate — "there's no movement in his stride," Hurdle said — in his hot start, noting that three of Meadows' four home runs have come against left-handed pitchers.
"If you're not impressed by watching Meadows' at-bats, you need to go watch another sport right now," Hurdle said. "I'd like to ask him right now if you've ever been in a better place, as far as feel and conviction in the box. When he hits the ball, there's carry to it."
Again, I asked Meadows about this, and he mentioned that it's his best since a 20-plus-game hitting streak in Double-A Altoona. "That's kind of where I am right now, just having a good rhythm up there, swinging at pitches, taking advantage of hitter's pitches," Meadows said. "That's the biggest thing to me, just being aggressive and not taking pitches I can hit."
Meadows is batting .439 (18 of 41), with three doubles, a triple, four home runs and seven RBI in 11 games with the Pirates.
Problem is, the Pirates are 2-9 in those 11 games with Meadows after going 9-2 in the previous 11.
5. Taking charge
Hurdle liked the Pirates' fight at the start and finish of their 8-6 loss, as they had the winning run at the plate when Josh Bell struck out and Corey Dickerson popped out in the ninth.
"However, the game wasn't complete," Hurdle said. "We didn't play well enough to win. It doesn't matter. We've got to get better. The game's showing us where we need to get better."
And it starts with their skipper.
A positive sign is that Hurdle acknowledged as much.
"It's never good to go through it; however, they're going to look for some stability somewhere and I need to show up every day," Hurdle said. "I need to be on top of things and I need to be coaching and I need to be modeling the behavior that I want them to carry out on the field and in the clubhouse and everywhere they go and play.
"So we're going to hang tight together, we're going to figure it out and we're going to get through it and we're going to get better."
Beating the Cubs would be a good start.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.