PITTSBURGH — The already-taxed Pirates bullpen faced something of a nightmare scenario Friday when starting pitcher Gerrit Cole left the game due to injury in the top of the third inning. The bullpen picked him up, pitching nine innings of three-hit baseball before Juan Nicasio imploded with two outs in the 12th inning, leading to a 9-3 St. Louis Cardinals win.
“I hosed ‘em pretty good tonight,” Cole said, upset at letting down his teammates.
Cole’s injury consisted of tightness in his right triceps. It happened in between the second and third innings, and when he went back out to pitch the third, he threw five pitches before admitted that something “just wasn’t right.”
“The biggest thing was after I sat down after the second, going back out for the third, it wasn’t where it needed to be,” Cole added. “The second inning it was alright, it just didn’t respond after sitting down for a little bit.”
Cole batted in the bottom of the second, grounding out to his mound opponent, Michael Wacha, but he didn’t say that had anything to do with the injury.
With the Pirates in a bind, A.J. Schugel came through in a big way. The 26-year-old right-hander pitched four innings and threw 42 pitches, both season highs, and he came away without a blemish, holding the Cardinals without a hit and striking out a career-high four.
“It’s something I’ve never had to do before, but I’ve said before, whenever my name is called, I try to be ready and do what I can to help out,” Schugel said.
The Pirates also lost starting catcher Francisco Cervelli due to injury in the fourth inning. Cervelli cited pain in his left hand through the team and did not appear in the Pirates’ clubhouse after the game.
“It put us in a bind and I thought we responded very well,” Hurdle said of losing his starting battery so early in the game. “I don’t think you could’ve ever wanted a bigger effort than what you got from A.J. Schugel. One of the stalwarts that’s been in our bullpen and pitched extremely well.”
But if there’s been one constant with the Pirates’ bullpen this season is that no one is consistent. Schugel was in line for a feel-good win until Neftali Feliz surrendered a three-run, go-ahead home run to Matt Carpenter in the eighth inning. It was the second home run allowed in three appearances by Feliz, who had just come off a streak of 13 appearances where he allowed no runs and just three hits.
Nicasio’s struggles in the 12th were a bit more understandable. It was his first appearance out of the bullpen this season, and after starting and throwing 89 pitches against the Mets on Tuesday, he was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Friday.
“It’s never easy, regardless if he’s pitched in the bullpen or not,” Hurdle said of Nicasio’s spot appearance in the bullpen. “That’s why we don’t do it a lot and that’s why nobody does it a lot.”
Nicasio ended up throwing 44 pitches, which was “more than we wanted to take,” according to Hurdle. The number of pitches thrown — not to mention the results — may put into question Nicasio’s next scheduled start, which was supposed to be Tuesday in New York.
As has been the case for most of the last week, the Pirates are again at near-emergency levels of bullpen readiness. Schugel, obviously, will not be available Saturday. Kyle Lobstein pitched an inning after throwing 2.1 the day before in Denver, and it took Mark Melancon 26 pitches to get through his one inning. Notwithstanding Cole’s injury, the Pirates may be forced to make another roster move for bullpen help this weekend.
“We’ll figure something out,” Hurdle said.
BLOOM OFF ROSE?
The Pirates tied the game in the ninth inning off St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. Starling Marte started the inning with a triple to right and Jordy Mercer drove him in with an RBI single. It’s not the first time the Pirates have done damage against Rosenthal. Since the beginning of 2015, he has blown just five saves. Four of them were against the Pirates.
“I don’t know [what it is] specifically,” Hurdle said. “We get pitches to hit. [When] we don’t foul them off, we’re able to put them in play and take advantage of what was there for us. We have had some success, that probably doesn’t hurt as well. Hitters are going in knowing it’s something we’ve been able to pull off before.”
“Obviously, he has electric stuff,” Mercer added. “Everybody knows he’s going to come at you with the fastball, it’s just a matter of getting a good pitch and trying to find some green grass out there.”
Mercer agreed with Hurdle that more a team has success off an elite closer, the more confident they’re going to be in future matchups with him.
“If in your previous outings, you’ve gotten to him a little bit and your team is rallying late in innings, when you face him the next time, you’re going to carry that momentum over,” Mercer said. “Obviously, you can’t do it every time, because he’s that good. He’s one of the best. But that does tend to help us when you’ve had success off him and you can carry it over.”
As he has done in most of the team’s close games, Hurdle sent Sean Rodriguez out as a defensive replacement at first base in the eighth inning. It didn’t exactly go as planned, though. Rodriguez was unable to come up with a pair of throws from Jung Ho Kang in the 11th and 12th inning. Neither play ended up hurting the Pirates (and Kang was charged with a throwing error on one), but it brought into question the value of Rodriguez’s defense at the position. He went 1 for 3 at the plate, including a strikeout with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. Jaso was 1 for 2 with a walk and an RBI.
“We’re working to that point,” Hurdle said of Jaso’s defense being strong enough for him to stay in games. “It’s something we’re still working through. He’s working hard and getting better every day.”
SMALL BALL BUCS
The Pirates scored two runs against Wacha, and both of them came through old school small-ball techniques.
In the second inning, Starling Marte singled to right and advanced to third on a perfectly executed hit-and-run by Francisco Cervelli. Josh Harrison then drove him home with a fielder’s choice. In the fifth, Mercer led off with a walk, Schugel bunted him to second and Jaso drove him home.
In total, Wacha surrender only three hits, but the pair of runs was enough for him to leave the game with a deficit.
“He pitched well with a downhill angle,” Hurdle said. “He executed pitches and kept the ball down. We’ve seen it before.”
• The Cardinals are now one game ahead of the Pirates for second place in the National League Central. The Pirates also fell behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins in the Wild Card standings.
• Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright hit the go-ahead RBI double in the 12th inning as a pinch hitter.
• Francisco Liriano will face Carlos Martinez on Saturday. That game will start at 7:15 p.m.