Russell Martin had two hits, including one of the solo homers, in the Pirates’ losing effort. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Losing in Cincinnati does not harm Pittsburgh’s playoff chances as much as one might think. The Reds and Pirates are still on a collision course for the NL Wild Card Playoff (43% chance this is the Coin Flip Game matchup), and even after a loss the Bucs are still 8.5 games ahead of being out of the postseason picture.
However, the dropping Friday night’s game 5-3 showed one of the Pirates’ major weaknesses and hurt their chances to do something for the first time in two decades.
1. The Bucs are still frustratingly poor at hitting with runners on base.
People who pegged the 5-0 deficit in the 5th inning as the start of PIRATES COLLAPSENING 3.0 are idiots. Their overall frustration, though, is understandable. Pittsburgh’s offense has been about as maddening as a 56-38 team’s offense can be. The Pirates collected 10 hits but still went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and could not plate any of the 11 runners who reached base. Garrett Jones, Francisco Liriano and Jordy Mercer all grounded into double plays and Pedro Alvarez struck out to leave two runners in scoring position.
So again, frustration. The Pirates remain a National-League-worst .228 with runners in scoring position. As many times as we say the regression is coming and the Bucs will start to find more base hits to score baserunners, it is still tough to watch them labor through and not score. Credit to Dusty Baker and the Reds’ bullpen for pulling all the right moves to shut Pittsburgh out, though.
What makes playing the Reds at Great American Ball Park so difficult is the lineup seems to be designed to knock those short home runs over close fences to win games. The roles reversed Friday as Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin all hit solo homers in the 6th inning to cut Cincinnati’s five-run lead to a two-run lead.
But they could add nothing else, and perhaps that fact played a part in the high interest in White Sox right fielder Alex Rios hugging his teammates later in the evening. The Pirates are not desperate for a new hitter to spark the offense, but boy could they use someone that could stop the frustration with runners on base.
2. Still looking for a playoff game at PNC Park? Win the next two.
Manager Clint Hurdle sends A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke out to try to win the series in Cincinnati and salvage a poor Friday start from Francisco Liriano.
The Pirates’ left-hander was not awful, at least not by the standards Liriano has set for awful starts in past years. He lacked control and gave up too many hits, but the line of five earned runs in 4.1 innings makes Liriano seem worse than he was. His command was off, but the results were also impacted by the Pirates’ fielders whiffing on a few convertable plays.
Liriano was charged with all four runs in the 5th inning, but two of the three hits he gave up that inning were ground balls off the gloves of Mercer and Alvarez. The Cincinnati scorer designated them both as hits, so when Justin Wilson came in and served up the hardest-hit ball of the frame to Brandon Phillips for a bases-clearing double, all the runs were charged to Liriano.
The Bucs are now just three games ahead of the Reds instead of four. So if they are indeed headed straight for a matchup in Game 163, Friday night’s loss gives just a little bit higher odds to that game being played in Cincinnati. Most Pirates fans would probably accept that result, and I certainly would, are you nuts? But that outcome would push back the 21-year-wait between MLB playoff games in the City of Pittsburgh.
Hosting a postseason contest has become the new goal, and the Pirates get two more games this weekend to continue the push for it.