The Pirates New Look Bullpen Has First Bad Night in Loss to Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The Pirates bullpen experiment had been cruising along until Friday, when everything came to crashing halt in the ninth inning as Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson imploded for six runs in a 9-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

Here’s how it played out:

Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Hudson pitched scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh after Trevor Williams was pulled for a pinch hitter in the top of the sixth. Hudson’s last out was Albert Almora, Jr., who was batting ninth because Joe Maddon bats his pitchers eighth.

That set up the Cubs’ top of the order with Anthony Rizzo (.886 OPS), Ian Happ (.824) and Kyle Schwarber (.693) due up in the eighth. All three are left-handed. They were followed by Addison Russell (.661), Jason Heyward (.721) and Willson Contreras (.687), with Heyward the only lefty of the second trio.

It’s a perfect situation for Hurdle to do what he’s promised he would do and find the best situation to use his best relievers instead of managing to the save statistic. Two of the Cubs’ three best hitters were up and they — and the other batter due up that innings — were left-handed. It doesn’t get any more obvious than that. If Rivero set the side down in order, he could possibly get through Russell and Heyward in the ninth.

Hurdle did what he said he’d do and inserted Felipe Rivero to pitch the eighth. He gave up a weakly hit double to Ian Happ that started to unravel things. That meant that Rivero had to face Russell in the eighth and Russell caused him some trouble. Rivero eventually struck him out, but it took him 10 pitches to do and left him at 20 pitches overall on the inning — too many for Hurdle to send him back out for Heyward as he had intended.

“That’s what we were looking to do if the opportunity presented itself, if got him out at 13 or 14 (pitches),” Hurdle said. “Then Russell had a 10-pitch at-bat, and that tipped it for us right there. That’s (20) pitches, high-intensity, right through the meat of their order.”

With Rivero exhausted, Hurdle turned to Nicasio, who was his next-best available option. It just didn’t work out. Nicasio gave up three straight hits before being pulled for Watson, who gave up three more before Jhan Mariñez finally put out the fire.

The highest-leverage situation ended up being Contreras’ double in the ninth, with Russell’s strikeout and Schwarber’s at-bat in the eighth coming in a close second.

Of the three most important at-bats of the game, Rivero got two and Nicasio got one. There doesn’t seem to be a better way to work around that given the constraints of the arms involved and the sequencing of the Cubs hitters. Hurdle seemed to recognize that after the game.

“It set up the way we talked about it setting up and we didn’t finish it off,” he said.


Trevor Williams had an eventful first inning. He gave up a lead-off home run to Anthony Rizzo that was called back. He then walked Rizzo, gave up a hit to Ian Happ, got two fielder’s choices — one of them a 7-5 play from Adam Frazier to David Freese and was on the cusp of getting out of the inning.

Then he walked Heyward, uncorked a wild pitch that scored one run and gave up a double to Contreras that gave up another.

“It was weird,” Williams said. “From the start it was weird. I think that would have been three leadoff homers for him (Rizzo), which would have been insane. It’s tough. I spiked a slider, then I spiked it again and then I hung it. It’s tough. It’s a lack of execution right there. He’s out if I execute that pitch and we hold them to one run. It’s unfortunate.”

After the rough start, Williams put two on the in the second, but a conversation with catcher Francisco Cervelli turned things around.

“Cervy came up to me and just said, ‘Why are you trying so hard? Why are you trying to do too much?’” Williams recalled. “It’s a reminder that I’ve been trying to work through this entire year. I’ve been trying to make perfect pitches, especially early. You can’t make perfect pitches every time. It’s just about execution. Cervy reminded me and it really got me back to center and figured out how to become the pitcher I am.”

Williams then retired the next 12 batters he faced.

“Williams got on a nice roll,” Hurdle said. “He started getting in a rhythm, aggressive. Two-seamer played. The slider. The mix was really good for innings two through five for him.”


Josh Bell has been regularly hitting fifth since Hurdle reshuffled the lineup with Andrew McCutchen hitting sixth.

It hasn’t been all great for Bell — he has a .214 batting average in that span — but he does feel that with McCutchen hitting better behind him, he’s seeing some pitches that he might not otherwise see. He gave the 3-1 pitch he sent over the 410 sign in the notch in left center as one of them.

“It’s cool, especially (now) that he’s on a roll,” Bell said. “You get a fastball out over to hit instead of a changeup, curveball, whatever. Gives me better pitches in those situations. It’s awesome.”


  • When I look at Rivero blowing people away I don’t see a man “exhausted” after 20 pitches. This was the freaking Cubs and we had a lead. I’ll bet Rivero would like to have been out there in the 9th as well.
    Williams should not have been hit for either, he looked pretty good to me.

  • What happened to Polanco? Is it time to look for his replacement? When he came up he was supposed to be able to make adjustments from pitch to pitch and was described as an excellent outfielder and base runner. I was expecting him to hit between .270 -.280 with 20+ HRs and 80 RBI’s. Even possibly steal 15 or more bags. Now he struggles to hit .250, with very little power and tends to leave everyone in scoring position on the base they were occupying. His outfield play and base running leave allot to be desired. What happened to what was once considered an elite prospect? I am disappointed and do not see any improvement.

    • bucswsbound
      June 17, 2017 1:58 pm

      That’s a really important question. I think this goes beyond injuries (which was postulated by Alan on twitter recently), especially his tentative play in the outfield. He looks awkward out there.

    • My question is why they keep batting him 3rd.

    • I said this before on another thread. He’s lost in all facets of the game. He doesn’t have one extra base hit in June, has 14 RBI for the season (ranked 10th on the club) and eighth in homers (behind such power hitters as Cervelli and Mercer) and, get ready for this, his OPS (not OBP or SLG) is .476 for the month. And of course the Cubs 9th gets started with another defensive miscue! Send him down to AAA and let him get his head straight! For God’s sake Osuna’s batting better than him and couldn’t play worse defense

  • The plan for using Rivero in high-leverage situations is sound, but this bullpen is not set up like the Indians. Allen makes using Miller early in games an easy call. I’d still use Rivero in the 9th. If the pen blows the lead earlier at least you have some bats left to retake it.

  • Alen Hanson 4-9 with a walk and no strikeouts with sox. Had a really good game at 2B and played cf last night. Good to see he is getting some playing time and playing well. Right on cue.

    • My wife and I were saying the same thing last night as his stat line scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

  • BucsStopHere
    June 17, 2017 9:44 am

    Left vs Left the reasoning then it Watson should have started the 8th and Rivero closed, otherwise what is Waton’s role? They need Watson to do something, but Rivero should be the closer.

    • Watson’s role? Assume Bastardo’s role; last man in. Use only in case of emergency.

  • First, although the final score was not to my liking, the quality of play by the Pirates certainly was. They looked like they were going to get blown out early, but TW righted the ship and kept them in it long enough for Bell to turn the tide in Pirates favor. I also was encouraged by the way they fought back in bottom of 9th to bring tying run to plate, where JHay came oh so close to tying it up.

    Second, the issue with the bullpen isn’t when to use Rivero, it lies in fact Rivero is only reliable arm in critical situations. Until, Hudson, Nicasio, or someone else like Santana, steps up and shows the ability to be consistently effective in high leverage situations, blown leads will be a recurring theme for the Pirates.

    • They didn’t lay down in the 9th vs Wade Davis no less, so that was a bit of a silver lining.

      Hate to even consider the thought as it still sounds absurd, but had Jaso not PH for Williams earlier, I would’ve PH him for Polanco at the end.

      Love what Josh H brings, but sometimes he tries to do to much. While he was 15 feet from making this a 1-run game, that swinging strike 3 was at his eyeballs. He’s been working more walks lately and has the ability to foul off a ton of pitches. That was one to take.

      • Scott Kliesen
        June 17, 2017 9:12 am

        Yeah, I, too, wish JHay had made Davis make him throw another pitch in the zone instead of chasing the high fastball. But ump had called several high strikes in game, and I would’ve really been mad if he had gone down looking.

        Polanco needs to know they’re attacking him w high fastballs and needs to make them pay by tomahawking that pitch. Very frustrating to watch him keep swinging under those high fastballs.

        • Polanco is under everything. Saw him hit two weak pop ups to the left side the other night. It’s tough to watch. All the numbers I had hoped this OF would put up 3 years ago and the 3 of them just haven’t all put it together in the same year. I guess these 3 never will. We will have to hope for the big 3 breakthrough with Meadows, Polanco, Marte I guess.

    • It’s well past time to add a better reliever. The bullpen snatched another loss from the jaws of victory.

      Also, Polanco’s struggles have gone on long enough. He’s young, but the PBC doesn’t look like it’s the right fit for him. He isn’t delivering any positives.

      • Polanco was heating up before the last time he got dinged up again. It’s just been a disastrous last 150 or so games for this team.

        • This team could really use a legit 4th OF, but preference is given to having an invisible man on the bench. Moroff now.

          • They really need an OF that can play an average to above CF.

            • His name is Meadows, but his bat isn’t ready yet.

              Sure wish they hadn’t traded that kid to Milwaukee though.

    • It certainly seems like Watson is toast for now. I’d try Santana in the 8th to see what he can do and Rivero in the 9th. It is a mistake to try Nicasio in a role other than the 7th. Right now Nicasio and Hudson should be the 6th/7th inn I Ng guts. French the utility reliever. Watson to the DL.

  • You take your starter out after 5 consistently, this is what you’re going to get. Asking for 4 innings from this pen is simply asking for trouble.

    Why was Williams pinch hit for so early? His pitch count was good and he was in command. Cervelli was at 1st with two outs – that’s not an ideal scoring situation, no need to put Jaso in there at that point.

    Seven games in a row against division opponents – CH has to let his starters go longer if they’re pitching well. And other than the 1st inning, Williams was.

    I don’t have any issue with CH using Rivero when he did. That was absolutely the right call. I do think that if Williams had gone 6 or longer, things would’ve set up differently. Could’ve also let Frenchy stay in instead of going right to Hudson.

    fwiw, Nicasio historically sucks vs Cubs. From a pure stats geek perspective, Hudson should’ve closed instead of Nicasio. But Hudson was already used. I imagine that wasn’t in Hurdle’s plan, but if you’re going to go with advanced stats to determine how you use your pen, why not go all the way?

    • I have trouble understanding why we didn’t let Williams pitch 6 innings too. Not like we had runner in scoring position.

      But then regardless of 3 or 4 innings, last 3 innings would have been Hudson Rivero Nicasio anyways so maybe same results. Who knows.

    • If were talking advanced stats you should also consider the time through the order penalty for williams as well. He may have been cruising but coming around to the 3rd ans 4th time through i imagine the cubs would have hit him harder. I think hurdle played this one about as good as he could have. Nicasio just couldn’t execute.

      • Williams had already gotten past Rizzo and Happ 3rd time through. Schwarber can’t hit this year and Russel is also having issues.

        I think the play was to let Williams start the 6th. If either of the first two get on, then bring in LeBlanc to face Heyward.


    • Yes, taking Williams out for a pinch hitter in that situation was a head-scratcher. I also would have started the ninth with Watson – at least you would have had lefty-on-lefty and then bring in Nicasio for the right-handed batters.

  • The bull pen has blown 10 saves. This team could be in first place. Watson himself was on pace to have 15 blown saves. Just forget all of these machinations, Rivero is my closer come hell or high water. If I am going to lose, I am going to lose with my best. Of course, Hurdle won’t do this…he’s smarter than everyone else!!!

  • rickmontgomery
    June 17, 2017 7:25 am

    There is a factor here you guys don’t know about. Whenever my friend, Bob, or I actually go to a game, the Pirates lose. He and I refer to it as The Curse. Bob was there last night. Tried to sneak past The Curse as part of a group, but The Watchful Eye spotted him during the 7th inning stretch. No strategy can overcome The Curse.

    • Rick please stay home or go to Kennywood

    • I’ve been to 15-16 regular season Pirate games in my life and they have won 2-3 of those games. It’s not us. It’s them.

    • Years ago in the mid to late 80s my Dad had a weird karma streak of them always losing when he attended his 3 or 4 games a year. The steak got to be so well known locally that, when my cousin, who owned a local tavern, would have a bus trip, his patrons would ask him, “Is your Uncle going?” before deciding to attend or not. No kidding

  • Honestly I’m more sad that we had the bases loaded and still managed to… do nothing. Not even a sac fly.

  • KennethBaldonieri
    June 17, 2017 6:39 am

    I completely agree with the bullpen usage here. It’s not Hurdle’s fault that he has 1 1/2 good relievers.

    Also, at this point, Watson needs to be “hurt” and go in the Bastardo dl trip.

    • I understand the usage but to me as a person who is busy and needs to go to sleep or get things done, save Rivero for the 9th so the game can be blown 20-30 mins earlier so I don’t consistently waste my f’ing time. It’s funny but as soon as Heyward hit the double I was overwhelmed with dread like they had already lost.