Before the start of the 2011 baseball season, the chances of the Pirates making the playoffs were considered fairly astronomical.
Yet through the month of July, the Bucs surprised and excelled—for a brief time holding first place in their hands—and they energized their fanbase as they soared several games above the elusive .500 mark.
Fast forward to August 5th and peek at the standings. Locked in a devastating tailspin, the Pirates are now two games below .500 and find themselves seven games out of first place. A once-promising season has devolved into a fight for survival.
The blame could be cast in a myriad of directions. Nagging injuries. A feeble offense. A few poor pitching performances. Some hot opponents. A couple of blown calls by the umpires. A smidgen of poor defensive play. Even some dag-gone bad luck.
But you shouldn't have to lump in some poor managerial decisions.
And Clint Hurdle has made some questionable pitching decisions lately, the most glaring being the misuse (or under-use) of Joel Hanrahan in important game situations.
Observing Hurdle as he shuffles his relievers into close games has provoked winces of exasperation from increasingly frustrated fans. Hurdle has repeatedly called upon struggling setup man Jose Veras to hold leads, only to permit him to struggle longer than necessary through several poor outings, snagging a few defeats from the jaws of victory.
When you see your relievers treading water early, as Veras and even a few others have been lately, you've got to shorten the leash.
Some Pittsburgh sports writers are curious as to Hurdle's reluctance to utilize Hanrahan from the eighth inning on. An occasional two-inning appearance surely would not destroy his effectiveness. Fact is, if you stretch him ahead even just an out or two sooner, you might have a few more wins and be in a much better place in the chase for the division title. Wait too long and you stare another loss in the face.
Hanrahan is an important tool in the Pirates' pursuit of precious victories. Hurdle ought to use any tools at his disposal to ensure success for his team.
Now, seven games out of first place and fresh from a four-game sweep by the Cubs, the Pirates will need to pick up one game per week to get back into contention. And the Bucs are chasing two teams (both Milwaukee and St. Louis), not just one. There are enough head-to-head meetings against the other contenders to retain some thread of hope. But the mountain ahead gets tougher to climb with each and every loss.
The comet that is the Pittsburgh Pirates orbits and brightens only every so often. It now seems that they may have circled past the playoff opportunity and could be headed back out to the empty space that they have occupied for the past 18 years.
It was Hurdle who made the Pirates relevant again. It's up to Hurdle to grasp the "gravity" of the situation and shorten that orbit by any means possible so that the Pirates might once again have their time in the sun.