PITTSBURGH -- The two best bullpens in the National League in 2015 went at it in the second game of the 2016 season Tuesday night. These bullpens, belonging to the Pirates and Cardinals, still looked like top-notch groups.In the end, which didn't come until the 11th inning, the Pirates broke
PITTSBURGH -- The two best bullpens in the National League in 2015 went at it in the second game of the 2016 season Tuesday night. These bullpens, belonging to the Pirates and Cardinals, still looked like top-notch groups.
In the end, which didn't come until the 11th inning, the Pirates broke a long offensive drought for both teams, scoring a run on a single just inside the first-base line by shortstop Jordy Mercer, to win, 6-5.
From the fifth inning on, this was a bullpen game, and neither side could score for six innings. It was compelling stuff, midseason form for relievers even on a night in western Pennsylvania that had more of winter than spring in it.
The Bucs and the Cards -- with bullpens ranked first and second, respectively, in ERA in the NL last season -- battled on even terms. It did not seem like an ideal night for a battle of the bullpens. In fact, it wasn't a very good night to even sit in the bullpen.
By the time the relievers started appearing in this game, the temperature at PNC Park was 38 degrees. By the 10th inning, the temperature was 33. But earlier in the day, the grounds crew had cleared the snow off the warning track, and the evening was clear, if increasingly frigid.
After spotty performances from both starting pitchers -- Michael Wacha for the Cardinals and Jonathon Niese for the Pirates -- the relievers took over with the game tied, 5-5. Zeros started appearing on the scoreboard with complete regularity.
"It was a tale of two ballgames," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
The Cards' relievers led on style points for a time, but not on the scoreboard. From one out in the fifth through one out in the 11th, St. Louis' bullpen retired 18 Bucs batters in a row, striking out eight in that stretch. Korean right-hander Seung Hwan Oh, struck out the side in the sixth. Left-hander Kevin Siegrist struck out two in the seventh, and closer Trevor Rosenthal struck out two in the ninth.
Pittsburgh's relievers did not produce as many gaudy secondary numbers, but they ended up giving up one less run. At the end of the night, the Pirates got two scoreless innings from lefty Kyle Lobstein, and the Bucs scored off Seth Maness in his second inning of work.
Lobstein's initial work did not point toward success. He walked the first batter he faced and threw six straight balls before finding the zone. After that, though, Lobstein got a fly out and a double-play ball. In the 11th, he gave up a one-out single but struck out the other three men he faced.
"I think it was just settling in, a little bit of nerves going on, first appearance of the season," Lobstein said of his momentary lack of control. "But I was able to settle in. I felt good after those first couple of batters."
"When you throw six straight balls, you kind of dig yourself a hole," Hurdle said. "But we saw a guy who can command the ball, move the ball around the zone, change speeds."
The work of the rest of Pittsburgh's relievers, each one pitching an inning, was summarized this way by Hurdle, in order of appearance:
"[Arquimedes] Caminero, that was as efficient an inning as we had all night." (Caminero emerged into the cold Pittsburgh night and threw his first pitch 100 mph.)
"[Tony] Watson had a little traffic, but he can make pitches, he ended up working through the middle of the lineup.
"[Neftali] Feliz has a two-strike pitch, clipped a guy, but then he makes a really nice pitch to get a double-play ball.
"[Closer Mark Melancon], he makes a good pitch and gets a fisted pitch down the left-field line that goes for a double. And then he shows what he's done before, and he just settles in. He gets out of it.
"A really fantastic job by all the guys in the bullpen."
The Cardinals had every right to feel very good about their relief corps, as well.
"They came in and did a real nice job," manager Mike Matheny said. "We were hoping to hand a lead to them and couldn't get there. They were terrific. One right after another, that's what we were hoping for. From Oh to Siegrist to [Jonathan] Broxton to Rosey and Seth came in … it was what we were hoping to see, just under different circumstances."
"It was unbelievable," Wacha said of the Cardinals' bullpen. "Those guys were throwing up zero after zero. They're going to be a big key to our team this year. We have a really good bullpen that can come in and throw strikes and get guys out. They kept us in there, gave us a fighting chance. It was a lot of fun watching those guys go to work."
But the Pirates had one thing the Redbirds didn't have on this night: A victory. The Bucs' bullpen gave up more baserunners but no runs. Eventually, Pittsburgh found one run.
On a long, cold night, in a game belonging to the bullpens, the last word goes to the winning pitcher: "That's what teams do; they persevere," Lobstein said.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.