Loss counts just once, and Bucs can regroup
Though Pittsburgh took thumping in Game 1, NLDS has hardly started
ST. LOUIS -- No manager ever wants to play his infield in during the third inning, especially when he's already trailing, 7-0. No Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder likes to see his team make three errors, especially when the most careless of them belonged to him. And no All-Star closer wants to spend a long afternoon in the visiting bullpen, waiting for a call he knows won't be coming.
But days like Thursday come with the job description for a baseball player. Sometimes even in October.
"Every game is not the same," Jason Grilli said in a quiet corner of the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium. "If it was, what's the joy in playing it?"
Grilli seemed generally copacetic -- even though the Cardinals had just pounded the Pirates, 9-1, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series -- and so did the rest of his teammates. They're riding the high of a 94-win season and Tuesday's victory over the Reds in the win-or-go-home NL Wild Card Game. They also have stored within their DNA the knowledge that they've won their last five starts behind rookie Gerrit Cole, who starts Game 2 on Friday (1 p.m. ET, MLB Network).
"We've won a lot of ballgames and lost a lot less," Grilli said. "I don't think we have anything to hang our heads about. Fortunately, this is a series, not a one-game playoff. We'll be fine."
While it's understandably hard to see the Bucs pulling off an upset -- they were underdogs before manager Clint Hurdle left A.J. Burnett dangling in the seven-run third inning -- Grilli might just be right.
An ugly loss at the start of a five-game series is hardly a death sentence for a team.
This marked the 32nd time a Major League team had lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series by five runs or more. Ten of the teams that got thumped recovered to advance to the Championship Series or World Series, including the 1984 Padres. That team lost the opener, 13-0, but recovered to make the lasting memory be the Cubs' Leon Durham allowing a grounder to go through his legs in the deciding fifth game.
Two years ago, drama was scarce at the start of the Division Series. Three of the four games were decided by big margins -- Rays over Rangers, 9-0; Yankees over Tigers, 9-3; Phillies over Cardinals, 11-6 -- but in all of those series, it was the team that got knocked down early that would prove to have staying power.
"Not every game is going to be close," said center fielder Andrew McCutchen, whose rare misplay cutting off a ball allowed one of the Cards' two unearned runs to score. "It [stinks] that it wasn't close, but it's better to be Game 1 than Game 5. We got our butts whipped tonight, but it might be a good thing. We can show up tomorrow. We'll shake it off tonight, get our rest, and come back tomorrow."
For as badly as the Pirates executed their game plan against the division rival they know like a brother -- chasing Adam Wainwright curveballs at their shoetops and giving baseball's best clutch-hitting team extra outs like they were passing out candy to trick-or-treaters -- this isn't Major League Soccer (nor the World Baseball Classic, for that matter). The series will be decided by wins, not cumulative score. If Cole can hold his own against Lance Lynn, evening the series before it moves to frenetic PNC Field in Pittsburgh for Sunday's Game 3 (4:30 p.m. ET, TBS), the ugly loss can be forgotten.
And forgotten quickly, as it turns out, with Game 2 scheduled to be the first of four Division Series games on Friday.
McCutchen said he would "sleep happy" because of his two singles, including an opposite-field liner off closer Trevor Rosenthal, whom he will see again.
Hurdle, a natural optimist, did not reference the peaceful night of sleep awaiting him. He didn't enjoy being second-guessed about the extended patience he displayed when Burnett unraveled.
Cast into a leadership role on the pitching staff, Burnett retired only five of the 16 hitters he faced. Hurdle kept hoping that he could make some undisclosed mechanical adjustment and escape a hole of his own making after Carlos Beltran's monstrous three-run homer in the third inning.
Reliever Jeanmar Gomez didn't make his first warmup toss until Burnett was facing the seventh hitter of the inning, after this sequence: walk (to Wainwright, of all batters), single, homer, double, hit batter and walk. You can say Hurdle was late with the hook, but that decision played no role in the outcome.
Besides, to Hurdle and the Bucs, what happened Thursday no longer matters.
"We've lost a few games like this this year," Hurdle said. "What we've been good at is just moving on. We knew coming in we had to find a way to win a game here. We didn't win today. We're really good at dealing with the reality of the situation."
One reality facing Hurdle is that Burnett throws batting practice when he's on the mound at Busch Stadium. He's gotten pounded here on a monthly basis since August, surrendering 17 runs on 20 hits in only 9 1/3 innings over three starts.
No matter how you slice it, that's ugliness that goes far beyond Game 1.
Hurdle was asked an appropriate question: Could he start Burnett against Wainwright again if this series went to a decisive fifth game?
"I'm not going to get [ahead of myself]," Hurdle said. "There's no sense to. We might not play a Game 5."
He paused for one or two seconds, tops, and added four words to finish his thought: "Couple different reasons why."
Those were the truest words Hurdle said. The Cardinals might crush the Pirates, yes, but the Bucs are still capable of winning in four games. Even if this series looks like it's already over, it's really only beginning.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.