ST. LOUIS -- Finally, it seemed like the Pirates might have something to feel good about Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Josh Bell hit two home runs, ending a drought that spanned more than a month, and the Bucs sailed into the bottom of the seventh inning with a four-run lead. Then came arguably the most devastating inning of the Pirates’ dreadful second half.
A catchable fly ball dropped between two players. Kyle Crick hit one batter to load the bases and another to force in a run just before rookie Lane Thomas -- in the Cardinals’ starting lineup for just the second time this season -- hit a go-ahead grand slam. The Pirates left Busch Stadium with an 11-9 loss, an eight-game losing streak and a 48-69 record.
“I think we’re all just kind of in a little rough spot here. It’s not the easiest thing to close out, but we know how to win,” Crick said. “We’ve won before. Last year, we won quite a bit. This team, this group, knows how to win. I have confidence.”
Pittsburgh has lost 24 of 28 games since the All-Star break, a stretch defined by frustrating missed opportunities and exasperating mistakes like the ones they made in Sunday’s seventh inning.
No wonder Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, speaking with broadcaster Greg Brown before the series finale, indicated that a shakeup of some sort may be necessary.
“We recognize that changes are needed,” Huntington said during his weekly KDKA-FM radio show. “Emotional decisions are rarely good decisions.”
Huntington seemed to be implying that those changes, whatever they may be, won’t be made immediately. But it’s fair to wonder how much longer this can continue without anything changing. It’s true that 11 of Pittsburgh’s second-half losses have come by only one or two runs, yes, but it’s no less true that just about everything that could go wrong lately has gone wrong.
“It’s a combination of the players I put on the field, the work we’re doing with them and the work the players are getting done,” Huntington said. “We recognize that our decision-making process needs to go through a thorough review.”
Reviewing the sequence that cost them Sunday’s game won’t be pleasant.
With one out in the seventh, Paul Goldschmidt hit a fly ball to shallow left. Left fielder Pablo Reyes, who was double-switched into the game in the fifth inning, came in and shortstop Erik Gonzalez went out to get the ball. From the Pirates’ dugout, coaches thought it was Reyes’ play to make. Nobody caught it.
“We catch the ball in left field, I don’t know what happens in that inning,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I’m not so sure that inning plays out the same way it does. That ball’s got to be caught.”
Marcell Ozuna singled to center and Paul DeJong popped out -- it would have been the final out of the inning if someone had caught Goldschmidt’s ball -- then Goldschmidt and Ozuna pulled off a successful double steal. Up came Yairo Munoz with two on and two out.
“It seems like every time we don’t take advantage of an out that’s there for us, the door just doesn’t get kicked in,” Hurdle said, “but it gets shoved on us.”
Crick’s seventh pitch of the at-bat, a 95.4-mph fastball, hit Munoz in the shoulder. Crick’s next pitch, a slider, slipped out of his hand and hit Andrew Knizner in the arm.
“The last one kinda got away from me on the slider. Slipped out, kind of backed up on me,” Crick said. “Previous one was kind of an overthrow, leaked a little arm-side on me. First time that’s happened in my career.”
Hurdle moved to the top step of Pittsburgh’s dugout, but he didn't remove Crick. Right-hander Richard Rodriguez wasn’t available. Setup man Keone Kela is suspended. Hurdle had well-rested closer Felipe Vazquez prepared to pitch in the eighth, if the situation called for it, but not the seventh.
The only pitcher throwing in the bullpen at the time was right-hander Chris Stratton, who has served as more of a long reliever -- not someone accustomed to entering a high-leverage, bases-loaded jam. So Crick stayed in to face the rookie Thomas.
“I still felt at the time Crick had the best stuff to get us out based on experience and the situation,” Hurdle said.
Crick was one pitch away from getting out of it. With a full count, the right-hander was trying to fire a fastball down in the zone that Thomas would hit on the ground. The pitch wound up veering up and inside, and Thomas pulled it out to left field for his first career grand slam.
Just like that, the Cardinals were ahead and the Pirates’ hopes of ending their losing streak were gone.
“Everybody here does this because they love the game, and the game beats you up every once in a while,” Hurdle said. “When we get to Anaheim, they’re not going to care. We’ve got to get ready and play tomorrow, learn from where we didn’t perform well or what we didn’t do well, try to go ahead and recalibrate and get back on the winning side of things tomorrow. It didn’t happen today.”