NEW YORK -- Clint Hurdle got it right. And it still went wrong.
This may be the single greatest hazard of making decisions in a Major League dugout. You can step away from the orthodoxy, do the thing that really does maximize your team's chances of winning ... and still lose the game.
Hurdle, not known as an analytically oriented manager, split from traditional, save-based bullpen management in his team's 3-2 loss to the Mets on Thursday. He brought in setup man Mark Melancon to face the heart of the Mets' order in a tied game in the eighth inning. Then he went to closer Jason Grilli for the ninth with the score still tied.
It doesn't seem that this should be all that revolutionary, but it was. This is not how bullpens are handled on the road in 2013, for the most part.
A single, a sacrifice bunt and another single meant Grilli took the loss. It does not mean that Hurdle made the wrong move. Quite the contrary, the process was correct, and he should be lauded for it.
"That's the beauty of this game," Hurdle said. "It's the beauty of sport and the challenge that comes with it. We wanted Melancon pitching to the [high-]leverage part of the order, and we knew the pinch-hitters were going to come out in the ninth. [Mike] Baxter is one of the best in the league, and then [Ike] Davis behind him, he burned us earlier. Our guys were rested. We wanted to take that shot."
According to what has become conventional wisdom, this is not how you are supposed to do it. The conventional play would have been to hold Melancon for at least the ninth, if not later, then wait until the Pirates took a lead to use Grilli.
That's the cover-your-behind approach. If you do that, you're not going to get roasted on talk radio the next morning. It's also not the best way to win a game. Hurdle recognized that for those two situations, he needed his two best relievers. He didn't want to face his team in defeat without having used his best. Those later situations may never come, and if you lose a game without using your best pitchers, you didn't get it right.
So he called on them. And it didn't work. Sometimes the game is cruel.
Hurdle pointed to two key considerations in making the decision. He felt both pitchers were sufficiently rested after seeing some heavy workloads in April. And he considered the threat of the opposing hitters -- the Mets' best hitters in the eighth, the threat of the left-handed Baxter and Davis in the ninth -- worth taking seriously.
"It's always a challenging call," he said. "But I think there's appropriate times for it. It's not every time, by any means, depending on how much they've been used and what part of the lineup you're in. Grilli doesn't have a whole lot of history as a closer. He's pitched in every situation this game can present, so he's probably one of the guys that you'd be less mindful of [taking out of his primary role]. He wants to compete."
Grilli made nothing of being used in the dreaded non-save situation. He knows his main responsibility isn't to get saves, but to get outs.
"I pitch when I'm asked to pitch," he said. "You know the situation when you're called on. I didn't want to give up a run there, give us a chance to win. That's our job: Not give up hits, not give up walks, not give up runs."
So while Thursday's game was a loss for the Pirates, it was a small victory for common sense and reasonable bullpen management. The Bucs got it right, even in defeat. Here's hoping the result doesn't cause Hurdle to avoid similarly bold tactics in the future.