Pirates fall to Cards to clinch 19th straight losing season
Less than two months after sitting atop the NL Central standings and adding players at the trade deadline instead of scouring other clubs' farm systems and selling, the Pirates reached an all-too-familiar milestone on Wednesday: loss number 82.
Derrek Lee and Alex Presley combined for five hits in support of Charlie Morton, who tossed seven strong innings in his return to the rotation, but the rest of the Bucs' bats faltered in a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. The Pirates (67-82) stranded a runner on third base in three different innings while extending their consecutive losing season streak to 19, the longest in the history of any North American professional sport. The Cardinals (81-68), meanwhile, keep their faint playoff hopes alive.
"It comes down to execution," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were very good at it for three and a half months, and we've not been good at it for the last six weeks in a number of different areas. The game exposes that...our how-to has to improve for us to become a championship organization and get to the point where we don't talk about consecutive losing seasons anymore."
Making his first start since September 4, Morton (9-10) was the tough luck loser. He struck out six batters while allowing six hits, three walks and plunking a batter. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of 30 hitters, logging 10 ground ball outs.
"I thought he pitched a quality ball game out there today," Hurdle said. "The breaking ball was a big pitch for him today, especially against the left-handers."
Morton has thrown 160.2 innings this season, which surpasses the total he tossed between Triple-A Indianapolis and Pittsburgh last season by one inning and is 63.2 frames more than his previous major league high, set in 2009. Breaking through that innings wall is key, Hurdle said.
"We've got five starters who have made 25 starts this year," Hurdle said. "It's the fifth time in our organization's history that has happened. [Increasing innings totals] is one of the building blocks that we need to get in place to move forward to create the organization at a championship level."
"The work load is something I have to face," Morton said. "It's a first for me to do it at this level. But to get where I want to be, I need to be able to go out there, take the ball and get innings."
Leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal whacked the first pitch he saw from Morton to right field for a double in the first inning, later advancing to third base on a Jon Jay sac bunt and scoring when Allen Craig also shot a ball to right for a two-bagger.
The Pirates tied the game at one apiece in the third, as Mike McKenry doubled to left field off Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson and Presley, who went 2-for-4, hit the first of his two doubles on the day.
"He's just trying to play to his skill-set here and not play outside of that, and I think he's done a very professional job of that," Hurdle said. "He continues to work on his short game and his running game, but as far as putting the barrel on the ball, he's been very, very good."
St. Louis tacked on two more against Morton in the fourth. He issued a leadoff walk to Lance Berkman, hit Craig with a changeup and then surrendered a two-run double on a sinker to Yadier Molina, who lined to pitch off the base of the Clemente Wall in right field.
Pittsburgh narrowed St. Louis' lead to one in the sixth inning, with Lee (3-for-4) doubling in Presley. In the seventh, Pedro Alvarez lined an inside fastball from Jackson to right field and was replaced by pinch-runner Chase d'Arnaud. D'Arnaud moved to second on a Ronny Cedeno sac bunt and swiped third base as pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit struck out swinging.
Garrett Jones was announced as a pinch-hitter, but Hurdle called on Josh Harrison instead when Cardinals manager Tony La Russa brought in lefty reliever Mark Rzepczynski. Harrison swung through a low changeup to strand d'Arnaud.
That wasn't the first time that the Pirates squandered a prime scoring chance.
Lee singled to center and Ryan Ludwick doubled to left to begin the second inning, bringing Alvarez to the plate with runners on second and third and no outs. Alvarez tapped a Jackson fastball to first baseman Albert Pujols, who threw home to get Lee sliding head-first at the plate. Jackson then snagged a comebacker to the mound off Ronny Cedeno's bat to start a 1-6-3 double play.
After Presley's run-scoring double in the third, Neil Walker grounded out to first base and Presley was stranded at third when Andrew McCutchen whiffed on a low-and-away cutter.
Jackson (5-2) struck out five and didn't walk a batter in 6.2 innings. Like Morton, he kept his infielders busy with 11 ground ball outs.
As a Pittsburgh kid, Walker feels the fans' pain.
"I've lived in this city for the last 26 years, so I do kind of understand [the frustration over the losing streak] a little more," Walker said. But the baseball that we played for the first four months of the season...we know what we're capable of.
"More than anything else, it's a mentality," Walker continued. "When you don't feel good, it's tough to score runs and the pitching is fatigued, you have to find different ways of putting up runs and winning games. That's been a tough thing for us this year."
"We have a core group in place," Hurdle said. "But I think one thing we've also learned is, there's much work in front of us. These three games are a microcosm offensively. We got into situations in the last two games where we had people in place to make plays and score runs. We didn't. They did. That's why they're in a pennant chase right now and we're not."
FURCAL EXITS IN FIFTH
Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal left Wednesday's game in the fifth inning with a mildly strained left knee. Furcal, who served to DL stints this season for a broken left thumb and a strained oblique, suffered the injury while getting thrown out trying to steal second base. Morton pitched out, catcher Mike McKenry fired to Ronny Cedeno, and Furcal landed hard on his knee while trying to slide wide of the tag.
HURDLE HIGH ON LEE
Since the Pirates acquired him from the Orioles in late July, Derrek Lee has pummeled NL pitching to the tune of a .373 average, a .397 on-base percentage and a .678 slugging percentage in 59 at-bats. Hurdle would love to have the 36-year-old pending free agent back in his lineup in 2012.
"The thing he's been able to bring to our lineup that were hoping for initially when we went out in the free agent market is a guy to anchor the middle spot in the lineup," Hurdle said. "He's a great defender at first base. Big target, nice feet, soft hands. He's got a slow heartbeat, and he's got a voice of reason in the clubhouse.
"If you speak to him, I think he's enjoyed his time here. I don't know what the future's gonna hold. But he told me last year he didn't want to come to Pittsburgh, and he's had an awful good time in Pittsburgh. Those are his words."
MORTON TINKERING WITH REPERTOIRE
With a Roy Halladay-esque delivery and a power sinker, Charlie Morton has shut down right-handed batters this season. Righties had a .553 on-base-plus slugging percentage vs. Morton entering Wednesday's start. Lefties, however, have tattooed him for a Berkman-like .961 OPS. In an effort to hold lefties at bay, Morton is mixing in more cut fastballs. He threw around 20 in 94 total pitches (21 percent) against the Cardinals. Morton has thrown a cutter about six percent of the time overall this season, according to Fangraphs.com
"Pretty much my whole career I've been throwing a slider," Morton said. "And toward the end of last year I started throwing a harder slider that was a hybrid between a cutter and a slider."
Morton's cutter began the year sitting in the low 90s, but it has settled in a few ticks slower than his sinker and four-seamer.
"I'm just trying to get a pitch that looks like a four-seamer and then cuts. It's a really good tool to have to get lefties off me," Morton said."
St. Louis' lefties went a combined 3-for-14 vs. Morton on Wednesday, with two walks.
KARSTENS NOMINATED FOR CLEMENTE AWARD
Jeff Karstens was named the Pirates' nominee for the 2011 Roberto Clemente Award. Presented annually since 1973, the Clemente Award "recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."
Each team nominates a player for the award, and a winner is chosen by a panel that includes Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, and Commissioner Bud Selig. Fans can vote on MLB.com this year, with the winning ballot counting as one vote on the selection panel. Willie Stargell is the only Pirate to win the Clemente Award, getting the honor in 1974.
PIRATES CLAIM CATCHER
The Pirates claimed catcher Matt Pagnozzi off waivers from the Rockies. The 28-year-old, designated for assignment by Colorado over the weekend, has made brief big league cameos in each of the past three seasons and has a .317 average, .377 OBP and a .397 slugging percentage in 74 career big league plate appearances. At the Triple-A level, the former Cardinals farmhand has a .239/.315/.334 line in nearly 900 PA.
To make room for Pagnozzi on the 40-man roster, the Pirates shifted Steve Pearce (right index finger fracture) to the 60-day disabled list.
BUCS RELEASE 2012 SCHEDULE
The Pirates released their schedule for the 2012 season today. Pittsburgh opens the season at home on April 5 against the NL East juggernaut and cross-state rival Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates host the Royals, Twins and Tigers in June interleague play matchups and hit the road for contests against the Orioles and Indians. They finish up the year with a home stand against Atlanta in early October.
The Pirates travel to L.A. for a four-game set with the Dodgers. RHP Ross Ohlendorf (0-2, 8.03 ERA) opposes LHP Dana Eveland (2-0, 0.60 ERA). In four starts since returning to the majors on August 23, Ohlendorf has been throttled for 18 runs in 16 innings. Batters have a collective .429 average, a .471 on-base percentage and a .610 slugging percentage against him over that time frame.
The 28-year-old righty missed four months with a strained right shoulder this season while making slightly over $2 million. Arbitration-eligible again in 2012, Ohlendorf figures to be cut loose this winter if his struggles continue.