MILWAUKEE — The Pirates entered the last day of April somewhere they have rarely been in the last 20 years — in first place — and with 15 wins, an opening-month benchmark they haven't reached since 1992.
But without improved starting pitching, it brings into question whether such a compelling start can be sustained, and whether there will be more losses like Tuesday's 12-8 defeat to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, where the Pirates' middle relievers faltered.
As a consequence of a Pirates starter again failing to pitch deep into a game — James McDonald allowed seven runs and 13 baserunners in five innings — the Pirates again dipped into their middle relief pitching, and this time it caught up to them, allowing five runs in the final four innings.
The Pirates entered the night leading the National League in relief innings and ranked last in innings pitched by starting pitchers.
“We have red-lined our bullpen,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “We've got to improve the length from the starters. “I didn't want to use (Tony) Watson, (Mark) Melancon or (Jason) Grilli unless we had a lead the last two nights, just to keep their numbers smart going into an off day.”
Hurdle eventually went to Watson in the eighth, when he gave up a three-run homer to Rickie Weeks to give the Brewers a 12-8 lead, but first Hurdle went to Vin Mazzaro in the sixth. Brewers shortstop Jean Segura hit the first pitch he saw from Mazzaro over the wall in right to tie the score at 8.
Two batters later, Jonathan Lucroy lined a single off Mazzaro's lower leg that knocked him from the game.
Mazzaro was replaced by Bryan Morris, who was called up Tuesday to take Jonathan Sanchez's place on the roster.
Yuniesky Betancourt welcomed Morris by lining a 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall to begin the seventh to give the Brewers a 9-8 lead.
“There was a bushel full of three-ball counts,” Hurdle said of McDonald's start “His curveball wasn't in play. … On back to back nights on the mound, we haven't had intent and conviction with our pitches”
While McDonald's four-seam fastball sat between 92-93 mph in the first inning, it was 90-91 the rest of the outing, again below his career average of 92 mph.
McDonald said he feels “fine” physically, despite his decline in velocity.
“They were spitting some pretty good pitches,” McDonald said. “They put together some pretty good at bats.”
McDonald walked back-to-back batters to begin the second, and Martin Maldonado scored both runners with a two-run double. McDonald allowed an RBI double to Carlos Gomez in the third and a two-run single to Weeks in a three-run fourth.
The Pirates got a break to begin the sixth. Jose Tabata appeared to have grounded into an inning-ending double play, but he was ruled safe at first. Starling Marte followed with a three-run homer to give the Pirates an 8-7 lead.
Before Marte's shot, Russell Martin and Andrew McCutchen hit back-to-back home runs in the fifth inning off Marco Estrada to cut the Brewers' lead to 7-5. McCutchen ripped an Estrada 90 mph fastball deep to right center for his third homer of the season. McCutchen went 4 for 5, raising his average to .247.
“My confidence is always through the roof regardless of the outcome,” McCutchen said. “I don't think about the results, I think about the process.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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