I like the unusual occurrences, the kinds of screwball plays that don't happen all that often -- like a great run down, the use of the infield fly rule or the triple play. This is why I love balks. Love. Them. You don't see them very often. They're tricky, slippery little suckers, nebulous movements that happen in a blink of an eye. So I usually revel in the rare balk.
But I was not at all happy yesterday to see my friend the balk arrive at Citifield in the bottom of the 8th inning. Jose Veras' balk moved pinch-runner Willie Harris over from 1st base to 2nd base, which then allowed Mets Skipper Terry Collins to insert Josh Thole mid-at-bat for Chris Capuano. It was like dominos falling. Capuano was there to bunt Harris to second, but with Harris already at second, Collins was freed up to put a real hitter in there. With Thole at the plate, and after having committed a balk, Veras went temporarily insane, threw a wild pitch that put Harris at 3rd and then walked Thole. Instead of a man on 2nd and one out, the Pirates were up against men on 1st and 3rd and no outs.
The Deadliest Balk.
But, as deadly as all that was, in all honesty, the Pirates should never have been in that situation with the game tied in the 8th inning after building a 7-0 lead and chasing Mets starter Mike Pelfrey after just five innings.
The problems really started for the Pirates, not in the ill-fated 8th, but in the bottom of the 5th inning when Paul Maholm was still on the hill.
I have been critical of Maholm in this space, some of it is probably unfair, but some is justified. If I'm being completely fair, he's not a bad pitcher and, in fact, when he's good, he can be very good, a very sturdy starting pitcher. That said, Maholm goes from reliable lefty to bum in about one hot second. When he has his stuff, he's a good ground ball pitcher, but when he loses his stuff -- and it happens in a blink -- he's tossing grapefruits up there like Fat Jimmy Anderson.
I think this is why it's so easy for me to pick on Maholm. When the wheels come off for him, he gives up huge innings. Not one and two run innings, but four and five and six run innings. He seems to be a good guy. He wants to pitch well. He wants to carry the team. And his coaches want to believe in him. I get all of that and I think it's why every skipper who has come through here has made the mistake of sticking with Maholm too long and having it come back to bite the team in the ass.
Some pitchers can battle through a rough stretch and come out the other end. Not Maholm. When he gets in trouble, his curveball doesn't just hang, it positively dangles. As soon as opposing batters start hitting the ball in the air -- even for outs -- he's done. Which is why Clint Hurdle's spidey-sense should have been tingling in the bottom of the 5th -- as all three Mets' outs came on fly balls. Deep fly balls, too, not pop ups. As soon as you start seeing that from Maholm, don't think 'Paul Maholm,' think 'Fat Jimmy Anderson,' because you don't have much longer before he's going to flame out spectacularly.
After Maholm opened the 6th by giving up a double to Carlos Beltran and then walking Jason Bay, it was already too late for him.
So I'm reconsidering my criticisms of Maholm, trying find some balance. This one is on Maholm and Veras, but equally so on Ray Searge and Hurdle (both of whom I greatly love already). Know your pitcher.
Maholm doesn't battle out of trouble.
He pitches great.
Or he pitches like ass.
There's just no middle ground. First sign of trouble? Get the bullpen humming. It's just that simple.
What really frosts me about it was that it was such a great opportunity to take three out of four from the Mets, a franchise in complete disarray, but instead they lost a gut-punch game and now have to face the mighty Phillies. I would have felt a lot better about this weekend's series with that extra win under the Buccos' belts.
[Photos courtesy of mlb-baseball-blog.com and mlb.com]