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Pirates remain behind the curve in Game 1 loss

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright delivers against the Pirates during the second inning Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — The Pirates have trouble with the curve. Now they are behind the curve.

The Pirates were the third-worst curveball-hitting team in baseball this season, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

That was a major problem. According to BIS, only one National League pitcher had a better curveball than Cardinals' Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright in 2013: Miami's Jose Fernandez.

Could the matchup have been any less favorable? Yes. The 4 p.m. local start time meant Busch Stadium's infield shadows obscured pitches. making the curveball even more difficult to identify.

The variables in the NLDS Game 1 equation yielded an unsurprising result: Wainwright allowed one run over seven innings in the Cardinals' 9-1 victory. He struck out nine — five coming via curveball — allowed three hits and didn't walk a batter.

“It has been one of the challenges we've had,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of hitting curveballs. “Good curveballs are tough to hit for anybody. I know our averages don't play extremely well. That's about all I've got.”

In five career postseason starts, Wainwright has never allowed more than one run. If there's a fifth game in the series, Hurdle's club again will face Wainwright and his curveball. In 28 innings against the Pirates this season, Wainwright has allowed 18 hits, eight runs and six walks. He has 29 strikeouts.

How good has the knee-buckling pitch been this season? Wainwright recorded 111 strikeouts with the curveball and allowed three home runs. Opponents hit .177 against Wainwright's curve, which has tight spin and drops at a seemingly 90-degree angle.

Wainwright threw 29 curveballs Thursday. The Pirates swung and missed nine times. Five times the pitch recorded a strikeout, three times a groundout. No Pirate recorded a hit off the curve, with the only close bid being Clint Barmes' lineout in the third.

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said the club must better identify and lay off the pitch.

“I think the difference in the game was we had a lot of swings and misses out of the zone on the curveball,” McCutchen said. “If we just let those (curveballs) go, it could have been a different ballgame. That was a difference-maker for his outing.”

Marlon Byrd played winter ball in the off-speed pitch heavy Mexican League during the offseason to improve hitting against the curveball. But Byrd didn't face many curves like Wainwright's. He struck out twice swinging at the pitch twice Thursday.

“He's unbelievable at locating it,” Byrd said. “You have to make sure you're able to pull it. If you can't pull, you shouldn't swing at it.”

But seeing it at all is the hard part.

“You don't see spin,” Byrd said. “That's what makes the breaking ball so good. It's so tight. … It has no spin; it kind of looks like a fastball.”

Only it isn't. It dropped below the zone often Thursday, taking the Pirates' Game 1 chances with it.

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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