ATLANTA -- The tag was frozen on the visiting team's clubhouse video monitor for all to see as the clock turned past 2 a.m. on Wednesday.
The evidence was indisputable, too.
There was catcher Michael McKenry, in the middle of his 19th inning behind the plate, applying a swipe tag on Julio Lugo's right leg. Lugo was still several inches away from home plate. Umpire Jerry Meals appeared in good position to see the play.
But what was clearly seen on video replay somehow wasn't to Meals, who called Lugo safe to end the longest game in both the Braves' and Pirates' team histories on one of the most controversial calls in recent memory.
The 4-3 defeat at Turner Field was more than just loss No. 48 for the Pirates this season. It left an entire club visibly and vocally livid about being robbed of the opportunity to play on.
"There's always controversial calls that are really, really close," said Jeff Karstens, who had started the game hours earlier. "But I've never seen anything that bad. I don't really have a comment for it. Maybe he just didn't want to be here anymore.
"It's just a shame. You can't really put it into words. For some reason, somebody didn't want us to play anymore. So the game was ended."
The play in question came six hours and 39 minutes after Atlanta's Tommy Hanson threw the first of 599 pitches that would be tossed between the two clubs. It was inning No. 19 in a game that had been tied since the third. Pirates reliever Daniel McCutchen, who had been scheduled to have the night off, was in the middle of his sixth inning on the mound.
A one-out walk and single off McCutchen put Atlanta runners on the corners for reliever Scott Proctor; being the last Braves reliever, he had to bat for himself. McCutchen induced a grounder to third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who made a perfect relay home to McKenry.
The rookie catcher made his swipe and actually looked in position to begin an inning-ending double play by throwing to first base to retire Proctor, who had fallen down on his way out of the batter's box. That is, until he heard Meals' call.
|"For the game to end that way, it's really too bad. The game deserves better than that. The game tonight deserved way better than that."|
|-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle|
"I was kind of baffled," McKenry said afterward. "I didn't know what to do or what to say. I told him, 'I tagged him. I tagged him.'"
McKenry continued to plead with Meals, as did McCutchen, while the Braves celebrated on the right-field grass. Manager Clint Hurdle was out of the dugout instantaneously and in Meals' face all the way to the umpires' tunnel.
"You'd like to see the game finished by the players, win or lose," Hurdle said. "And for it to end that way is as disappointing as it gets in a game. We had every player in the game laying it out there. Two pitchers in the bullpen threw over 80 pitches.
"For the game to end that way, it's really too bad. The game deserves better than that. The game tonight deserved way better than that."
Meals, who had been heckled by the Braves' dugout all night for his ball and strike calls, offered the following explanation for the call:
"I saw the tag, but he looked like he oléd him, and I called him safe for that. I looked at the replays and it appeared he might have got him on the shin area. I'm guessing he might have got him, but when I was out there when it happened, I didn't see a tag. I just saw the glove sweep up. I didn't see the glove hit his leg."
|"I saw the tag, but he looked like he oléd him, and I called him safe for that. I looked at the replays and it appeared he might have got him on the shin area. I'm guessing he might have got him, but when I was out there when it happened, I didn't see a tag. I just saw the glove sweep up. I didn't see the glove hit his leg."|
|-- Home-plate umpire Jerry Meals|
The call even seemed to catch Lugo off guard, as his body language did not look like that of someone who had just scored a game-winning run. But whatever Lugo might have thought to himself, he kept to himself afterward.
"He got the call right," Lugo told reporters. "I'm being honest. I didn't feel him tag me."
Hurdle addressed his clubhouse immediately after the loss, encouraging his players to express their frustration. When it came to making those feelings public, some were diplomatic. Others chose not to be.
Curse words were tossed liberally from those who still didn't understand what had just happened.
"Bad," McCutchen said of the call. "Can I say that he was out?"
"You hate to have that kind of play end the game," first baseman Lyle Overbay added. "We'd like to see someone get it through or do it legit."
And from McKenry: "It stinks that after 19 innings, that it comes down to something like that. We're in a fight right now in a division, and every win counts and every loss counts. It's just tough."
It's unfortunate, too, that all attention will be placed on a single call from a game that is going in the history books. In addition to becoming the longest game in franchise history -- its six hours, 39 minutes eclipsed a six-hour, 12-minute win over the Padres in 1979 -- the Pirates hadn't played that many innings in a game since a 20-inning affair against the Cubs in 1980.
What also should have stood out was a phenomenal collective effort by the team's bullpen. When Atlanta chased Karstens after five innings, Hurdle went to the first of six relievers he would need to cover the next 14 innings.
The first 13 of those innings were scoreless.
"At times it was tough, because it is so humid here," McKenry said. "I knew watching those guys battle on the mound all night, I had to stick my head in the dirt and do what I had to do. I had to battle for them."
Tony Watson set the tone by working around a throwing error from Alvarez in the sixth. Joe Beimel followed with his first two-inning appearance since April 26, 2010, before Jose Veras pitched a 1-2-3 ninth.
Next came appearances by Chris Resop and Jason Grilli, who stranded seven runners in his first three-inning appearance since 2008. McCutchen was next in line.
"I told Clint after the first inning that I'm pitching until we take the lead," McCutchen said. "I guess that was just college style. I just winged it until the game was over in college. That is kind of what happened tonight."
He ended up pitching 5 1/3 innings and throwing 91 pitches. That was 39 pitches more than his largest total this season.
"That's above and beyond the call of duty," Hurdle said. "Daniel was bad to the bone tonight. That performance, I mean, they'll be talking about that for a long time in Pittsburgh baseball."
Joel Hanrahan ended up being the only reliever not used by the Pirates, who emptied their bench of position players by the 14th. Atlanta ran out of position players in the 10th and used all seven of its relief pitchers.
The problem was that for every zero posted by a bullpen that now owns a 2.96 season ERA, the Pirates' offense couldn't push across anything to help. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead by the end of the second, Pittsburgh did not score in the final 17 frames.
Only three runners reached third in that time period. One of those was retired when the Braves foiled the Pirates' ninth-inning suicide squeeze attempt with a pitchout. Cristhian Martinez pitched six of those shutout innings for Atlanta, which then got three more from Proctor.
"Obviously, after the third inning, runs were very, very difficult to come by," Hurdle said. "They were nonexistent. But sometimes that is the way the game goes."
And so the same could be said for how it ended. For the Pirates, who have managed the highs and lows of the season quite well to this point, this defeat will prove to be the next test. Two more games remain in this series, and a total of five are left on this road trip.
"We'll move on," Hurdle said. "We'll definitely move on. The season is not going to stop."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.