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Bullpen lets down Pirates in loss to Cardinals

August 12, 2018
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Pirates reliever Alex McRae pitches during the sixth inning against the Cardinals Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, at PNC Park.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had the National League’s best bullpen over the 3½ weeks leading up to the trade deadline and added one of the American League’s best closers on Tuesday.

But Saturday night in a pivotal game against a team they’re in contention with, the best the Pirates could do out of their bullpen was Alex McRae and Dovydas Neverauskas.

The lack of available viable options -- and/or manager Clint Hurdle’s reluctance to resort to those options -- hurt the Pirates after they rallied to tie the game. The result was an 8-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ivan Nova was tagged for five doubles among the 11 runners he allowed in four innings, and McRae allowed nine runners and three runs in 3 1/3 innings. Those two and Neverauskas combined to throw 188 pitches. The Cardinals had 14 hits and walked seven times.

David Freese homered, and Adam Frazier had a two-run double for the Pirates, who fell into a tie with St. Louis and 7½ games out of first place. They also lost ground in a wild-card chase in which they are near the bottom of a nine-team pileup for two spots.

When Nova threw his 92nd and final pitch in the fourth, he had given up at least one double and at least two runners in each of his four innings.

“It was on and off, on and off,” said Nova, for whom the Pirates had won seven of his past nine starts. “I didn’t put it together, and it wasn’t my best effort.”

Still, the Pirates got Nova off the hook in the bottom of the fourth when four of the first five batters singled (Jordy Mercer drove in Francisco Cervelli), and Frazier followed up with a line-drive double to center that scored Mercer and Jose Osuna.

Osuna pinch hit and singled for Nova, meaning Hurdle had a decision to make.

He went to McRae -- a former 10th-round pick who was making his second major league appearance -- instead of Richard Rodriguez, who has a 3.02 season ERA and after the game said he was available and willing to go multiple innings.

″(If) we take a lead right there,” Hurdle said, “there’s a good opportunity Rodriguez does get into the game.

“But we didn’t get the lead.”

They didn’t stay tied for long, either, after McRae entered. The first three Cardinals batters against him had hits, and within 16 McRae pitches, St. Louis regained a two-run lead. They added another run in the sixth off McRae, who never has been among the Pirates’ top 10 prospects.

When McRae came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, the crowd booed.

“He’s here for a reason. He was here to pitch,” Hurdle said of McRae. “And unfortunately once we (fell behind), we needed the other innings to stay away from (the core relievers).”

McRae threw 78 pitches before Neverauskas (13.50 season ERA) was summoned with one out in the eighth. In his first outing of his fourth stint with the Pirates this season, Neverauskas allowed a Matt Carpenter home run in the ninth. Neverauskas’ ERA fell to 11.15.

None of the other five Pirates relievers had pitched on consecutive days heading into Saturday. Only Rodriguez pitched twice over the previous three days. Hurdle did reveal after the game that Edgar Santana was unavailable.

The Pirates had at least two “long men” in their bullpen virtually all season, but they traded Tyler Glasnow on Tuesday and optioned Steven Brault to Triple-A on Friday. That left only McRae to fulfill those duties.

Hurdle indicated any appearance by Kyle Crick, Felipe Vazquez or Keone Kela on Saturday would have left them unavailable for Sunday’s afternoon game.

“Our starters have given us 9 1/3 innings the last three starts. Your long man is going to pitch at some point,” Hurdle said. “Your ‘bridge’ dynamic is a little different now than it was when we had Brault and Glasnow. Richard pitched two innings before the day off (and one-third of an inning Friday). He’s going to have to go a minimum of two innings, and if the score doesn’t turn (then what?)

“Maybe you stay tied. If you get (fall behind), though, then you’re using your bridge guys and you’re taking them out of the game tomorrow. It’s a different dynamic.”

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