Pirates' bullpen falters in loss to Tigers

Travis Sawchik
| Monday, May 27, 2013, 4:42 p.m.

DETROIT — On a day when the Pirates made a series of roster moves, two decisions immediately came into question: giving Bryan Morris a ticket back to Indianapolis and not allotting just-called-up Mike Zagurski another inning.

After the Pirates scored two runs against Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the seventh to make it a one-run game, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called upon 40-year-old Jose Contreras to pitch the bottom of the inning. Contreras had thrown just 1 23 innings since May 16. He lasted a third of an inning, walking four, allowing a hit and two runs. It was the pivotal scoring in a 6-5 Tigers win on Memorial Day.

“You can't pitch the same guys all the time,” Hurdle said. “He needed to pitch that inning, and he wasn't able to pitch the inning. We have to give some guys other opportunities.

“Zagurski (who pitched a clean sixth), if he had less than 15 pitches, we probably would have pushed him for a second inning. … We can't pitch (Justin) Wilson and we can't pitch (Vin) Mazzaro every day. (Jason) Grilli was for late, and (Mark) Melancon wasn't in play.”

The Pirates sent down Morris and retained Contreras, perhaps in part because Morris, unlike Contreras, can be optioned to the minor leagues. In similar fashion, the Pirates previously kept 38-year-old infielder John McDonald on the roster instead of Jordy Mercer. Hurdle said earlier this year that the club wants as much roster flexibility as possible, not wanting to risk losing a veteran player who is without options.

On Monday, Hurdle rejected the idea the Pirates don't have their best 25 players on the 25-man roster.

“When we make moves, it's always about having our best 25 guys in the major leagues,” Hurdle said. “Always.”

Contreras walked Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to begin the seventh. With one out, Jhonny Peralta, who went 4 for 4, notched an RBI single. Brayan Pena followed with a walk to force in a run. The Tigers led, 6-3.

Of course, had Francisco Liriano pitched beyond the fifth inning, middle relief wouldn't have been tested.

Liriano was happy to leave the AL Central this offseason. The left-hander spent the first six years of his career in the division, and it was there where he was tagged for ERAs surpassing 5.00 in each of the past two seasons. Hurdle said the Pirates identified Liriano as a player who would see a significant spike in a production in moving to the NL, where hitters aren't as familiar with him.

The Tigers are well acquainted with the lefty. Their active roster had combined for a .858 on-base plus slugging percentage against Liriano. He allowed eight hits, two walks and four runs in five innings. Three runs came in the fifth, keyed by a Victor Martinez two-run double.

“They are great hitters,” Liriano said. “They pick up on things so quick.”

In his first three Pirates starts, Liriano allowed one run over 18 innings. Liriano's improvement is tied to fastball command, but he threw just 10 of 25 first pitches for strikes Monday.

Detroit's Justin Verlander had also looked like a different pitcher this season, failing to pitch more than five innings in his previous three outings, a stretch that included a 11.30 ERA. His velocity has been down, averaging 92.5 mph. But Verlander looked like his old self Monday.

He struck out every Pirate in the lineup and finished with a season-best 13 strikeouts. Verlander kept the Pirates to a run until the seventh when Travis Snider smacked an RBI triple, and Neil Walker followed with an RBI double. The Pirates' last rally was quieted in the eighth when Josh Harrison, called up Monday, was picked off second.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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