The Cardinals beat the Pirates 2-0 on Monday night with both runs scoring on Matt Adams’ walk-off home run off Pittsburgh reliever Justin Wilson with one out in the bottom of the ninth. With the win the Cardinals reclaimed second place in the NL Central from the Pirates, who had moved a half game ahead of St. Louis on Sunday night. The confrontation between Adams and Wilson proved to be the decisive one in the game, but arguably the turning point in the game came an inning earlier, when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was forced to make a very difficult decision in the top of the eighth.
Though the game was still a scoreless tie in the top of the eighth, Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton had effectively out-dueled Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. Eleven Pirates reached base against Wainwright over the first seven innings, at least one in every frame, forcing him to throw 112 pitches and yield to lefty reliever Sam Freeman for the eighth. Morton, meanwhile, hadn’t allowed a hit since the first inning and had allowed just three baserunners in the interim, two on walks to Matt Carpenter and one more when he hit Jon Jay with a pitch. With just 84 pitches through seven innings, Morton looked well on his way to a complete game. The only thing he lacked was a run from his offense.
The Pirates made yet another attempt to get Morton that tally in the top of the eighth as Neil Walker led off with a single and was pushed to second by a one-out walk by pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez. Continuing his career-long struggles against lefties, Pedro Alvarez flied out for the second out, failing to advance either runner, but when the Cardinals’ rookie second baseman Kolten Wong booted Jordy Mercer’s subsequent grounder, the Pirates had the bases loaded. The problem is that there were two outs and the hitter due up was Morton.
This situation is a flashpoint for the designated hitter debate. To DH supporters, having to choose between sending up a legitimate major league hitter in that situation and keeping a dominating pitcher in the game is one managers shouldn’t be forced to make and fans shouldn’t be forced to endure. To DH opponents, that choice is precisely what makes baseball without the DH so compelling. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, one thing is certain, Morton, a career .085/.089/.106 hitter is in no way a legitimate major league hitter.
By OPS+ (Morton’s is -46, that’s negative forty-six) he is one of the 11 worst hitters in the 143-year history of the major leagues to have had 200 or more plate appearances (all of them pitchers, of course, most of them of recent vintage). On the season, Morton is 2-for-26 with no walks. In his career, he has drawn one walk in 230 plate appearances, reached on an error twice, and never been hit by a pitch. Morton’s only RBI this year came on a squeeze bunt. He hasn’t had an RBI hit since last August. For a Charlie Morton at-bat to result in a run with two outs in an inning, even with the bases loaded, is a near-miraculous result.
Clint Hurdle knew better than to wait for a miracle, so he pinch-hit for Morton. The problem is he already used his top right-handed bench bat, Sanchez, to hit for the lefty Ike Davis against the lefty Freeman. Having started fellow righty Josh Harrison in right field, his options were righty backup catcher Chris Stewart, switch-hitter Michael Martinez, and lefties Travis Snider and Gregory Polanco. Stewart and Martinez are awful hitters, Snider and Polanco struggle against lefties. Any one of them would have been better than Morton, but the options were all underwhelming and the improvement over Morton far smaller than one might have hoped.
Hurdle threw out the splits and called on the best player on his bench, Polanco, despite his .160/.222/.280 line in 27 major league plate appearances against lefties (a meaninglessly small sample, but the only one we have from him at this level). It was over quickly. Polanco took ball one, but then looked at strike one, fouled off strike two, and missed badly at a slider down and away for strike three. Polanco missed so badly at that last pitch he might as well have had his eyes shut when he swung. Freeman couldn’t have made Morton look any worse. And with that, the Pirates rally was quashed and Morton was out of the game.
After that, All-Star set-up men Tony Watson and Pat Neshek exchanged zeroes to send the game to the bottom of the ninth. Southpaw Wilson opened the action by walking Carpenter on four pitches. Wilson then got Matt Holliday to fly to right, bringing up lefty Adams.
Adams has settled in nicely as the Cardinals’ first baseman over the last two seasons, hitting .305/.338/.512 with 26 home runs and 85 RBI in 606 plate appearances since the start of the 2013 season and playing a surprisingly nimble first base given his obvious girth. There are just two things preventing Adams from becoming a true star: he doesn’t draw walks (just six unintentional free passes in 287 PA this season), and he doesn’t hit lefties (.209/.218/.365 in 119 PA over the last two seasons with just five of those 26 home runs). He does, however, hit mistakes, so when Wilson hung an 0-1 curve right over the plate, Adams pulled it into the right-field seats for the game winner.
There’s no second guess here. The Pirates, who never scored, could have just as easily lost in extra innings had Morton pitched nine shutout innings, and none of the Pirates other pinch-hitting options were significantly more likely to get a hit in Polanco’s place. Wilson versus Adams was a favorable matchup for Pittsburgh, as well. Adams was 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in his previous confrontations with the Pirates lefty. Wilson just made a bad pitch. Ultimately, the Pirates lost that game not because of Hurdle’s decision or even, really, because of Wilson’s hanger. They lost because they hit into a pair of double plays and left 12 other men on base in the first eight innings. The main offenders there were Andrew McCutchen (0-for-4, GIDP), Russell Martin (0-for-4, 2 K), Alvarez (1-for-4, 2 K), and Jordy Mercer (1-for-4, GIDP). Credit Wainwright and Freeman for holding the line or blame the Pittsburgh bats for failing to come through, that was the key to the game.