Friday, May 6, 2011

Bullpen Can't Hold Lead, Bucs Fall 3-2

Geez, it would be nice to see Paul Maholm get through the first couple of innings clean. But tonight wouldn't be the night.

After lead off singles by Jason Bourgeois (who promptly swiped second) and Michael Bourn put runners on the corners, Hunter Pence hit a sac fly to right, a slicer deep enough to bring home the run and allow the speedy Bourn to tag and get to second. He stole third and Carlos Lee walked, moving to second on a short wild pitch.

Then the Bucs got a break; Maholm snagged a grounder and started a run down that got Bourn at the plate. It was still hairy when Angel Sanchez walked to load the bases. But Clint Barmes rolled one to Ronny Cedeno, and the damage was minimal, even if it did take PM 30 pitches to get through it. Two hits, two walks, two stolen bases, a wild pitch...and still only 1-0.

McCutch walked to start the Pirate half, but a K and Matt Diaz DP ended the frame quietly for Wandy Rodriguez. That's just one more reason we hate to see McCutch anchored to first. It was the fifth DP Diaz has hit into in 57 at-bats; his RBI and GIDP totals match.

Maholm got the 8-9 hitters out easily enough, followed by a Bourgeois infield single. Bourn flew out to McCutch, and PM came back strong with a nice ten-pitch inning. The Bucs went down in order. The Bucco lefty was feelin' it, too - he went through the heart of Houston's order in nine pitches.

Brandon Wood collected the first Pittsburgh knock, lining a single into left. He didn't last long; Ronny Cedeno tapped back to the mound for another DP. Maholm became Wandy's fourth K, and it remained 1-0 after three. And being Pittsburgh, a light rain began to fall.

PM continued his roll; nine pitches, three outs. The Pirate hitters continued their roll, too - three up, three down. Maholm kept mowing down Astros; he sat them down in the fifth, and now has ten consecutive outs to his credit.

Rodrigues was just cruising. He got the first two Bucs before Lyle Overbay cracked a double to right, and the magic ended; Wood tied the game with another double, this one to left. RC was walked intentionally. Maholm fought the good fight, falling behind 0-2 and then making Rodriguez go to eight pitches before hitting a come-backer.

Maybe Maholm was pooped after his at-bat; Hunter Pence got ahead of him 2-0 and lined a heater into center for a lead off single and Lee followed with a ground ball knock to right. He struck out Bill Hall, but lost Angel Sanchez on a five-pitch walk to load the bases.

Ray Searage paid PM a visit, and whatever he said was golden; Barmes hit the first pitch, a change up, to Wood to start an inning-ending around-the-horn DP. Unfortunately, it didn't wake up the Pirates bats. They went 1-2-3 in the sixth, and the score remained 1-1.

Maholm is used to pitching tight games; the Bucs never score for him. So he shrugged it off and cut down the Astros 1-2-3 in the seventh. He pitched a strong game since the first frame, only being in one jam the rest of the way.

Maholm would go seven, giving up a run on five hits, three walks, and four K's on 97 pitches, a rock solid performance that dropped his ERA to 3.68.

And the Bucs got him the go-ahead run. Neil Walker took a two-strike change up and golfed it well over the left field wall for his fourth long ball of the year. Snyder followed with a single, but W-Rod worked his way out of the inning.

Chris Resop came on, along with Xavier Paul in a two-fer. Resop violated the cardinal rule of late-inning relievers; he walked the first batter, Michael Bourn, a base-stealing machine. He stole second five pitches later (on a pitch-out, yet!), and trotted home after Pence doubled to right on a hung curve.

That was it for Resop; Jose Veras jogged to the hill. You can say a lot of things about Clint Hurdle, but you can't say that he's indecisive.

But he's not always right. Lee singled to left to give Houston the lead and went to second when Jose Tabata's throw was botched by Wood. And as quick as that, Maholm's outing was wasted. JV got out of the inning with no further damage, but the napping Pirate offense had its work ahead of it.

Wilton Lopez came on for Rodriguez. Lopez broke the same rule as Resop did, walking Paul on four pitches to open the frame. McCutch bunted him to second, oddly by the book for a team that likes to push it; we would have looked for a straight steal or hit-and-run in that situation. Tabata bounced into the second out, moving the X-Man to third, and Garrett Jones grabbed a stick to pinch hit.

That brought on LOOGY Fernando Abad, who did his job by catching Jones looking with a change up. Hanny climbed the hill for the ninth. And what is it with tonight's bullpens?

He walked pinch hitter Brett Wallace to start the inning. Bourgeois grounded a single through the second base hole to put runners at first and second. Bourn botched a bunt try, and eventually K'ed. Pence flew out and Lee bounced out, leaving the Bucs three outs to get back in the game.

Mark Melancon came on to close it out for Houston. He didn't walk the first batter (Walker hit the first pitch), and was rewarded when he roped one to Bourgeois for the first out. Snyer hit it on the nose, too, but Bourn made the grab. Overbay flew out to left, and the Astros took the opener 3-2.

The bullpen meltdown was especially disappointing because all four hits that the relievers gave up were after two strikes; they couldn't finish the Houston hitters off. But it's hard to pin it on the pitching; the Pirates had just five hits; with the pair of DPs, they only left four runners on base. The Bucs have hit into 34 DPs, second in the NL and fifth in MLB.

Some guys will make today's headline that the Pirates failed to reach .500 again; we'll follow that same lede - in September, if it's still a story by then. It's silly to start the losing streak countdown in the first week of May.

The hitting should get better and the pitching fall off as the year goes on; performance usually regresses to the norm. We'll have a better read on the team by Memorial Day; then the record should tell us what kind of club Pittsburgh has in 2011.

Charlie Morton faces Bud Norris tomorrow night at 7:05.

-- Pedro took BP today, but still has problems running. His status is day-to-day.

-- The beat gang reports that Ohlie threw live BP today, but isn't ready to take the mound in anger anytime soon. He needs to rebuild his arm strength, and no date has been set for his return. The Bucs seem content to throw Jeff Karstens out every five days until he's ready.

-- Scott McCauley, Indy announcer, tweets that Josh Harrison took BP, infield and was running; the Pirate prospect hopes to be ready for action shortly. Harrison went on the DL last week with a groin pull.

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