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Pirates offense fizzles again in loss

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Lack of offense finally did the Pirates in, and two errors by rookie shortstop Chase d'Arnaud led to two Cincinnati runs, as the Pirates lost the finale of their three-game set to the Reds 3-1. Jeff Karstens had another strong outing, giving up just one earned run over seven innings.

The closest Pirates hitters came to seeing a crooked number on Wednesday afternoon was the 47 on the back of Reds starter Johnny Cueto's jersey.

Cueto, featuring a new twisting, cross-fire delivery conjuring up memories of Luis Tiant and Hideo Nomo, stifled Bucs batters during a 3-1 Reds win in front of 25,207 fans at PNC Park. Jeff Karstens outlasted Cueto in the 90 degree heat, but a pair of errors by shortstop Chase d'Arnaud led to two runs and missed scoring chances by an ice cold offense denied the Pirates (51-45) a sweep of the defending N.L. Central champions.

"They were two plays we need to put away," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of d'Arnaud's errors. "That was pretty much the difference."

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pirates are tied for first place in the N.L. Central standings with Milwaukee, and St. Louis is one game back. Cincinnati (48-50) is four games off the Pirates' pace. The Brewers play the Diamondbacks on the road at 9:40 p.m. E.T. tonight, and the Cardinals travel to Queens for a game against the Mets at 7:00 p.m.

Cueto (6-3) surrendered one run and four hits in six-plus innings pitched. Turning his back to hitters and then unloading like a spring toward the plate, the 25-year-old right-hander struck out four batters and issued two walks. Cueto's deceptive delivery proved tough for Pirates hitters to pick up, Hurdle said.

"No matter how much tape you watch, until you get in the box and try to figure out the timing of when the turn is, try not to pay too much attention to the turn to third base and wait until he gets faced up to you and the foot comes down... it provides a challenge the first time through the lineup," Hurdle said. "But Johnny can pitch. You saw the numbers coming in... he kept the ball down, and kept his breaking ball in play."

Karstens (8-5) pitched seven strong innings, allowing seven hits while striking out and walking one batter apiece. He threw 58 of 77 pitches for strikes, and just one of the three runs scored against him was earned. Karstens also tallied one of the Pirates' two extra-base hits, doubling to deep right off Cueto in the third inning.

"It's part of baseball," Karstens said of the defensive miscues behind him. "Chase has made great plays all year, and mistakes are going to happen. If you would have told me that we'd score four runs this series and we win two out of three ball games... look on the bright side. We won the series."

Cincinnati grabbed an early 2-0 lead. d'Arnaud, back at shortstop after missing Tuesday's game with a stiff neck, made a sidearm throw that sailed past Lyle Overbay on a ground ball from leadoff hitter Chris Heisey, who pulled into second base on the error. Heisey advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Edgar Renteria and scored on a Joey Votto sac fly to left field.

In the second inning, Jay Bruce laid off an inside, 3-2 sinker from Karstens for a walk and stole second base with Jonny Gomes at the plate. Gomes lined a curveball to put runners on the corners, and a Miguel Cairo sac fly to center field plated Bruce.

The Pirates pushed home a run against Cueto in the fourth inning, as Andrew McCutchen snapped an 0-for-18 stretch at the plate and drove in Neil Walker by ripping a high fastball off the right-center field wall for a double. But d'Arnaud's second error of the day gave that run back in the fifth.

Karstens retired Gomes and Cairo to start the inning, and he got Cueto to slap a sinker at d'Arnaud near the edge of the infield grass. d'Arnaud tried to make a sliding grab, but he booted the ball. Heisey lined an 0-2 slider past third baseman Brandon Wood to put runners on first and second, and Renteria followed with a run-scoring single on a ground ball that snuck past a diving Wood and d'Arnaud.

"There's not much to say -- I just had a rough game out there and made a couple of mistakes that were costly," said d'Arnaud, who added that the neck ailment that he suffered while sliding into third base on Monday night wasn't a factor. "I felt alright. Good enough to play."

Pittsburgh failed to capitalize on a prime scoring chance once Cueto was lifted in the seventh inning. Reds manager Dusty Baker went to his bullpen after Mike McKenry reached by scorching a Cueto pitch off third baseman Scott Rolen's glove. Matt Diaz, pinch-hitting for Karstens, followed with a single off Bill Bray. But then Alex Presley's sac bunt attempt bounced back to Bray, who got the lead runner at third.

Logan Ondrusek came on for Cincinnati. d'Arnaud nearly sliced a ball down the right field line for extra bases, but it went foul and he later flied out to left field. Walker struck out swinging on three pitches.

"I thought it was gonna stay fair," d'Arnaud said of his near-game-changing line drive that veered foul. "It's just one of those days where you don't get that big hit. It happens."

Daniel McCutchen and Jose Veras each tossed an inning of scoreless relief, but Aroldis Chapman and Francisco Cordero kept the Pirates off the board the rest of the way.

The Pirates, 13th in the National League in runs scored, stranded eight runners on base.

"We had our chances," Walker said. "Fortunately for us our pitching has been so good that it has picked us up on several occasions."

"We have missed the big hit," Hurdle said. "We know what we have, and we don't have much room for error in terms of execution. When you need a good out to move a runner, we gotta make it happen. But we do have some people that we expected more from, and we're not getting it... we are looking at every way possible that makes sense to strengthen the ball club from an offensive standpoint. Some of those are internal, and some of those are external."

WALKER WOWS
While two Pirates errors proved costly on Wednesday, second baseman Neil Walker made a jaw-dropping 4-3 double play in the top of the sixth inning.

With Jay Bruce taking off from first base, Ramon Hernandez hit a sharp ground ball back up the middle just out of the reach of Karstens' glove. Walker, moving toward the second base bag, made a diving stop on his knees, crawled and tagged the base, and then made a Hail Mary toss toward first base with Bruce nearly on top of him.

"By the time I hit the bag, [Bruce] was already going into his slide," Walker said. "So I just kinda threw a grenade over there, tried to get it over his head and somewhere near first. Thankfully it didn't hit him in the head and I didn't get nailed, and it got to Lyle on time. It was a pretty luck play."

"Wow!" Hurdle said. "You watch the runner break, you realize the hit and run is on and you see the guy hit a bullet off the bat and you're thinking, 'this might not... oh my goodness... what?!' You think you're in a pickle, then all of the sudden you've got two outs and you're running off the field and you're going, 'wow, that's really good stuff.'"

"I thought it was gonna catch it, and thank God I didn't," Karstens said. "Baseball is a funny game sometimes."

BOLTERING THE BULLPEN
The Pirates are soon expected to sign right-handed reliever Jason Grilli to a contract. Grilli, 34 later this week, missed the entire 2010 season with a quadriceps injury and inked a minor league deal with the Phillies over the winter. Grilli compiled a 43-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings pitched at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before the Phillies released him so that he could pursue major league opportunities elsewhere.

Originally a top starting pitching prospect out of Seton Hall whom the Giants selected with the fourth overall pick in the 1997 amateur draft, Grilli has pitched parts of eight seasons in the major leagues while passing through Florida, Chicago (White Sox), Detroit, Colorado and Texas. He has a career 4.74 ERA, with 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched and 4.1 walks per nine.

Grilli himself may have broken the news on his move to Pittsburgh. Grilli posted on his Twitter account, "Black & Yellow! Black & Yellow! Black & Yellow! Cannot wait to join the new squadron."

ON DECK
Following an off day on Thursday, the Pirates return to action at PNC Park Friday night when RHP Chris Carpenter (5-7, 3.69 ERA) opposes LHP Paul Maholm (6-9, 3.06 ERA).

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