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Kuhl pitches well, but Pirates bullpen falters in loss to Red Sox

| Thursday, April 13, 2017, 5:36 p.m.
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Chad Kuhl delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Thursday, April 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison makes the catch on a foul ball hit by Boston's Marco Hernandez during the fifth inning Thursday, April 13, 2017.

BOSTON — It's early, but reason for optimism has been in short supply so far this season for the Pirates. Right-hander Chad Kuhl provided some Thursday afternoon against the Red Sox, but it was little more than scraping out a silver lining in a 4-3 loss.

After sweeping the struggling Braves over the weekend, the Pirates were swept by the Reds and had to travel to Fenway Park, where they lost their first two games of the season. A drenching rain washed out their April 6 game against the Red Sox, which necessitated a one-day return and the start of a seven-game, three-city trip.

Kuhl, making his second start of the season, gave a sterling effort. Matching a career high with 6 13 innings and six strikeouts, Kuhl gave up one run on five hits with no walks, dropping his ERA from 3.60 to 2.38. He threw 92 pitches (67 strikes), including first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 24 batters he faced.

“Chad pitched a fantastic game,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “To hold that offense in check, to pitch into the seventh, no walks, six strikeouts. The fastball command was excellent. (He) pitched to the game plan. He doubled up inside with fastballs, the slider was sharp. He used the changeup to both sides, stayed aggressive … It was fun to watch. It was the best he's pitched from all through spring training.”

But, with a tenuous two-run lead in the eighth, relievers Daniel Hudson and Juan Nicasio combined to allow three runs, sending the Pirates to their fourth consecutive loss.

Hudson opened the eighth, retiring Brock Holt on a groundout. He walked leadoff hitter Dustin Pedroia, and Andrew Benintendi reached on an error by second baseman Phil Gosselin, ending Hudson's outing. Nicasio walked Mookie Betts to load the bases for Hanley Ramirez, who drove a two-strike fastball to deep center. It appeared to score three runs, but after a review, Betts was ruled out at home on a nifty tag by catcher Chris Stewart. That mattered little when Mitch Moreland was issued an intentional walk, and Xander Bogaerts singled into right field for the go-ahead run before Marco Hernandez struck out to end the inning.

“My approach was just to throw a sinker inside, and I didn't miss,” Nicasio said, through team translator Mike Gonzalez, of the Ramirez at-bat. “The thing is that Hanley came out on top.”

The Pirates offense did most of its damage early, sending seven batters to the plate in the first inning. They scored two runs on Andrew McCutchen's first home run of the season, but the Pirates continued to struggle with runners in scoring position. They entered the game a woeful .171 with runners in scoring position after going 0 for 23 in such situations in the three-game sweep by the Reds.

McCutchen's homer came with Jordy Mercer on first base after opening the game with a walk. But after Gregory Polanco and David Freese followed McCutchen's blast with consecutive singles, Josh Harrison and Josh Bell struck out to end the inning.

The Red Sox got a run in the second when Moreland led off with a double, giving him an MLB-best eight, and scored on Hernandez's one-out double. But after Christian Vazquez's groundout moved Hernandez to third, Kuhl got former Pirates farmhand Holt to chase a 95 mph fastball, ending the threat.

The Pirates added a run in the sixth. After McCutchen struck out to open the inning, Polanco doubled and Freese walked, ending Rodriguez's outing.

Heath Hembree entered, striking out Harrison. With Bell batting, Polanco stole third, scoring on a throwing error by Vazquez.

Maureen Mullen is a freelance writer.

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