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Bucs' late-inning relief plan foiled

Rivero tosses scoreless 8th, but Nicasio, Watson struggle in 6-run 9th
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- Around 2:30 p.m. ET on Friday, the Pirates' coaching staff prepared themselves for the scenario that unfolded 7 1/2 hours later. If they had a slim lead in the eighth inning and faced the lefty-laden top of the Cubs' lineup, they agreed they would summon left-handed Felipe Rivero.

Rivero did his part, pitching a scoreless eighth, but a long at-bat taxed his pitch count too far for the Pirates' liking. Manager Clint Hurdle turned to the other half of his two-headed closer in the ninth, but right-hander Juan Nicasio gave up three hits and coughed up a one-run lead in the Pirates' 9-5 loss at PNC Park.

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PITTSBURGH -- Around 2:30 p.m. ET on Friday, the Pirates' coaching staff prepared themselves for the scenario that unfolded 7 1/2 hours later. If they had a slim lead in the eighth inning and faced the lefty-laden top of the Cubs' lineup, they agreed they would summon left-handed Felipe Rivero.

Rivero did his part, pitching a scoreless eighth, but a long at-bat taxed his pitch count too far for the Pirates' liking. Manager Clint Hurdle turned to the other half of his two-headed closer in the ninth, but right-hander Juan Nicasio gave up three hits and coughed up a one-run lead in the Pirates' 9-5 loss at PNC Park.

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"It set up the way we talked about it setting up," Hurdle said, "and we didn't finish it off."

Video: CHC@PIT: Cubs plate six in the 9th to take lead

Exactly one week ago, the Pirates pulled left-hander Tony Watson out of the ninth-inning role. He blew back-to-back save opportunities in Baltimore, making it clear that a change was necessary. Rather than replacing Watson, Pittsburgh elected to use Rivero and Nicasio in interchangeable late-inning roles.

If a situation called for Rivero, unquestionably the Pirates' best reliever this season, they would use him in the ninth. If the game dictated using Rivero in the eighth, he'd pitch the eighth. If Rivero could get more than three outs without wearing down his left arm, he would.

Presented with two save opportunities between Watson's demotion and Friday night, Rivero delivered two four-out saves. On Friday, however, the Pirates felt compelled to call upon Rivero to begin the eighth, not finish it.

The logic behind the decision was sound. Rivero was set up to face left-handed slugger Anthony Rizzo, switch-hitter Ian Happ and lefty Kyle Schwarber. Nicasio would be left with the right-handed Addison Russell, lefty-swinging Jason Heyward and righty Willson Contreras.

But Happ doubled, and with two outs, Russell fouled off five pitches before finally whiffing at Rivero's 90.8 mph changeup to end the eighth. That pushed Rivero's pitch count to 20, and considering Rivero's workload -- he is tied for the Major League lead in appearances -- that was enough for Hurdle. Even with Heyward due up, Rivero was done.

"That's what we were looking to do if the opportunity presented itself," Hurdle said. "[Russell's at-bat] tipped it for us right there."

In came Nicasio, whose first pitch resulted in a double by Heyward. Then Contreras slapped a game-tying double to right. Tommy La Stella singled, and the Pirates elected to intentionally walk Kris Bryant. Nicasio said pitching the ninth, rather than the eighth, had nothing to do with his subpar performance.

"It doesn't change anything," he said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. "It's the same thing, same hitters that I'm facing and just the same mentality I've got to go up there with."

Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Hudson pitched the sixth and seventh, respectively, so Hurdle had three options to replace the struggling Nicasio: rookie Edgar Santana, long reliever Jhan Marinez or Watson. So Watson, a week removed from being pulled out of high-leverage situations, came in with the bases loaded and nobody out in the ninth in a 4-4 tie.

Watson gave up two straight singles, allowing the Cubs to take a three-run lead, before Russell doubled home two more runs to make it a five-run game. All the Pirates' preparation could not make up for a lack of execution.

"That wasn't the plan going in, either," Hurdle said. "We got to a point where we tried to do the best we could with where we were to try to get out of it."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Juan Nicasio, Felipe Rivero, Tony Watson