When the day comes, and it doesn’t figure to be soon, that Clint Hurdle is looking for a job, this game won't be on his resume. This Saturday afternoon matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks was not Hurdle’s finest hour as Pirates manager. It has been a three-year run filled with lots of good decisions. Not many of them were today.
Forget for a moment the extended tour of duty Hurdle gave starter Jeff Locke and consider his decision-making process in the sixth inning when the Pirates had the bases loaded with two out and Arizona manager Kirk Gibson brought in left-hander Joe Thatcher to pitch with the Diamondbacks leading, 8-5.
Thatcher is the definition of LOOGY (lefty one-out guy). Over the past four seasons, he has appeared in 195 games and pitched only 109 1/3 innings. Over that same span, left-handed batters are hitting .199 against him.
Scheduled to bat for the Pirates was Neil Walker, a switch-hitter, who would turn around and bat right-handed against Thatcher. Batting right-handed this season, against lefties, Walker has a .212 batting average. In 66 at bats, he does not have an extra base hit. Trailing by three, a single would have been nice, an extra-base hit even nicer
The situation screamed for a pinch-hitter and, conveniently, Gaby Sanchez was available for the Pirates. Although a lousy pinch-hitter (2-for-22), Sanchez, a right-handed hitter, is considerably better at hitting lefties than Walker. In fact, Sanchez has a batting average against lefties that is 100 points higher than Walker’s; a slugging percentage that is 345 points higher than Walker’s; and a OPS of 995, which is ninth best in the National League, and is more than double Walker’s.
Inexplicably, Hurdle stuck with Walker. Against all logic, presumably a gut feeling, Hurdle sent Walker out to face Thatcher.
Strike one (looking), strike two (swinging), foul ball (which was close to being a hit), foul ball, strike three swinging.
In the end, it made no difference. The 8-5 score became 12-5 in the eighth and 15-5 in the ninth, which is how it ended.
Still, what was Hurdle thinking? He stuck with Walker in a similar situation earlier this month and Walker responded with a game-tying sacrifice fly. It makes no difference. Hurdle allowed a batter who is well known to have difficulty hitting lefties go to the plate instead of going with a player who is well known to have success hitting lefties at a crucial point in the game.
Hurdle's explanation (from Gene Collier's column): ``I think [Walker's] right-handed stroke has shown some momentum. He's worked hard. Every day we evaluate what the best lineup is to throw out, so we'll see as we move forward. He's workin' really, really hard on this because he believes he's got more to give from that side. We continue to go back and look at the 2010 tape in which the splits were very comparable.''
Hurdle's strategy in sticking with starter Jeff Locke, who labored from the start, was only slightly easier to understand. Managers hate to lift a starter early because it means throwing a ton of innings at their bullpen. But Locke looked like he needed help almost from the first batter. Arizona scored twice in the first on two hits and two walks as Locke was consistently behind in the count.
He gave up a hit and a walk in the second but escaped with the final two outs being line drives to the outfield.
Then came the deluge! In the third, after the first two batters were retired, single, single, double, single, single, home run, single. After the final single, Hurdle trudged to the mound and motioned to the bullpen.
Hurdle didn't know it at the time, but the afternoon would grow darker and longer.