PITTSBURGH: Manager Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates walks off of the field after pulling Paul Maholm against the Colorado Rockies during the Opening Day game. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Pirates have one shot at the postseason: They have to win the National League Central. The Wild Card's out of reach; there are just too many teams too far ahead of them.
Last Tuesday night -- well, Wednesday morning, actually -- the Pirates lost to the Braves in the 19th inning with Daniel McCutchen on the mound. McCutchen's a pretty good pitcher, but he threw 92 pitches, which was 40 more than he'd thrown in any other game this season.
Wednesday night, the Pirates lost to the Braves in the 10th inning with Chris Leroux on the mound. Leroux's got a 6.62 career ERA in the majors.
Sunday afternoon, the Pirates lost to the Phillies in the 10th inning with Tony Watson on the mound. Watson's a rookie, and he's pitched pretty well this season in limited duty. I'm guessing you've never paid him any attention until this very moment.
Hey, bad things happen to good teams. I get it. But the Pirates played three close games last week, losing all three in extra innings, and somehow none of those 39 innings, not a single one of them, were pitched by the Pirates' All-Star relief pitcher.
It's easy and sort of fun to rip Clint Hurdle for not using Joel Hanrahan -- not even a single inning! -- but he wasn't doing anything -- or rather, he wasn't not doing anything -- that nearly every other manager in the major leagues wouldn't have not done. Road game, tied ... gotta save your closer for the save situation!
Granted, Hurdle took things to a perhaps-unprecedented, possibly insane extreme when he couldn't find room for Hanrahan in a 19-inning game. There probably aren't many managers who would have taken this ill-considered protocol quite so far. But the protocol is there.
Look, I've got an open mind about this thing. There are smart people who will tell you that closers generally shouldn't be used in non-save situations, because they're not physically or emotionally prepared for them. I don't think baseball players are computer simulations (or paper cards). I get it.
I also believe that if you lose three extra-inning games when you're trying to win a pennant, without using your ace relief pitcher even once, you're probably doing something wrong.
The Pirates aren't going to win a pennant. But it would be enough if the Pirates win more games than they lose, because they haven't done that since 1992. If they Pirates finish one or two games short of a winning record, everyone is going to remember Jerry Meals, and blame him.
Not me, though. I'm going to blame Clint Hurdle, who left Joel Hanrahan sitting on his thumbs in the bullpen. Inning, after inning, after inning, after ...