When the Pittsburgh Pirates hired Clint Hurdle to be their new manager last November, I felt sorry for him. At the time I wrote, "Hurdle has just accepted the worst job in America. It's a job even Mike Rowe wouldn't want."
Perhaps I exaggerated slightly. But in the world of professional sports, being hired to manage the Pirates isn't exactly cause for celebration when you consider the team has not enjoyed a winning season since 1992. And after the first two months of the 2011 season it appeared that Hurdle wasn't going to be any more successful than the other six managers who have preceded him over the past two decades. On May 31, the Pirates were in fourth place in the National League Central with a 25-28 record, 6½ games back of the St. Louis Cardinals.
But then a funny thing happened. The Pirates started winning. Over a seven-week period the Bucs played their best baseball in nearly a generation and gave long-suffering Pirates fans a reason to attend games at PNC Park. Between June 1 and July 19, the Pirates went 26-16. On July 15, they found themselves in a first-place tie with the Cardinals. Three days later, they were in sole possession of first place of the NL Central for the first time ever. (When the Pirates last made a post-season appearance in '92 they were in the NL East.) On July 19, the Pirates stood atop the NL Central at 51-44 with a ½ game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and a 1½ game lead over the Cardinals. Pirates fans were ready to elect Clint Hurdle mayor.
But in baseball, as in politics, a week is a lifetime and two weeks is an eternity. In scarcely a fortnight, the Pirates have lost 11 of their last 14 games and have dropped six in a row. They have now fallen under .500 (54-55) for the first time since June 7th and are six and a half games back of the Brewers in the NL Central.
So what happened? Have the Pirates tanked? Or should I say planked? Maybe the blinding light of scrutiny got to them? (On July 25, ESPN televised a Pirates game for the first time since September 2004). I would make the case though that what happened the following night provides a better explanation of the Bucs' recent struggles.
On July 26, the Pirates and the Atlanta Braves played 19 long innings. In the bottom of the 19th, Braves relief pitcher Scott Proctor hit a groundball to Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez who threw the ball home to catcher Mike McKenry who tagged out Braves infielder Julio Lugo before he even got to the batter's box. Inexplicably, home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe and the Braves won the game 4-3. Needless to say Hurdle, McKenry, Pirates reliever Daniel McCutchen and all of Allegheny County were livid. The Pirates filed a formal protest with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's office and Meals subsequently admitted he made the wrong call. Nevertheless, the call stood and the Pirates came out on the short end.
Of course, if Meals had called Lugo out at the plate there's no guarantee the Pirates would have won the game. McCutchen could have easily surrendered a walk-off base hit to the on-deck hitter Martin Prado. While no loss is easy for any team it is far more difficult to lose due to circumstances beyond the team's control. At the time, I wondered how this event would affect the Pirates in the long run: "But as the old saying goes what doesn't kill you will make you stronger. The question here is whether this incident sinks the Pirates 2011 ship or if they will rally and find the means to swashbuckle their way to the NL Central title."
Well, since the 19-inning debacle, the Pirates have gone 1-7. The acquisitions of first baseman Derrek Lee from the Baltimore Orioles and outfielder Ryan Ludwick from the San Diego Padres at the July 31 MLB trade deadline have thus far not stopped the bleeding (though Lee did hit two home runs in his Bucs debut on August 1). It remains to be seen if Lee and Ludwick will be improvements over Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz.
Hurdle has also come under criticism for not utilizing Pirates All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan during this skid. For his part, Hurdle has acknowledged the criticism, stating that he relies on pitching coach Ray Searage for advice on Hanrahan's workload. Yet closers need regular work and Hanrahan has only pitched thrice since the Pirates were last in first place on July 19.
During an appearance on the MLB Network, former Chicago White Sox and New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel made the observation that the Pirates were going through "some growing pains." I would agree. The Pirates are a team of talented players who are starting to experience winning for the first time. Now all of a sudden they have lost whatever formula it was that made them successful and have reverted to their old ways, unsure of how to make their way back.
With the dog days of August and a third of the season to go it remains to be seen if the Pirates can right their ship. If they don't start now, they will not only lose the NL Central but they could end up with their 19th consecutive losing season.