Pirates' bullpen falters in extra-inning loss to Astros
So often this season, the Pirates' bullpen bailed out a starting pitcher unable to pitch deep into a game. The bullpen posted scoreless innings, allowing the Pirates' bats to produce 13 come-from-behind victories, tied with Texas for the major league lead.
The bullpen was perfect in protecting late-inning leads until Saturday, faltering in a 4-2, 11-inning loss to Houston.
Houston catcher Jason Castro led off the 11th with a double off Bryan Morris, and advanced to third on a wild pitch. He scored the winning run by beating a Neil Walker throw home on a fielder's choice. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was ejected from the game, arguing that catcher Russell Martin blocked the plate. Houston's J.D. Martinez followed with an RBI single to make it a 4-2 game.
Hurdle admitted afterward that plate umpire C.B. Bucknor made the correct call.
“He was right,” Hurdle said. “He got a good look at it, and he got it right.”
The Pirates entered 18-0 when leading after seven innings, as they had Saturday.
Morris lost the game, but Pirates setup man Mark Melancon lost the lead. Melancon had been nearly perfect this season, entering Saturday with a 0.43 ERA. But against one of the major league's worst clubs — Houston entered tied with Miami for fewest wins in baseball — Melancon had perhaps his worst inning of the season.
In relief of A.J. Burnett, Melancon allowed back-to-back singles to Trevor Crowe and Jose Altuve to begin the eighth. With one out, Chris Carter tied the score, 2-2, with an RBI single to left. Melancon limited the damage to one run when he induced Carlos Pena to ground into an inning-ending double play.
“I saw a guy that gave up a run on two three-hop groundballs and a broken-bat single to left,” Hurdle said. “I think that should show you how impressive all the time before is. You can give up a run and still throw the ball well, and he hasn't been giving up any runs for a long time.”
Melancon hadn't given up a run since April 14 against Cincinnati.
While Melcanon appeared to have his normal stuff, highlighted by a 92 mph cutter, the 32,925 in attendance Saturday hoped the eighth inning was not an early-season sign of an overworked bullpen. Though the season is just at the quarter-pole, Melancon made his 22nd appearance. Jason Grilli, who pitched a clean ninth, made his 20th appearance. Morris pitched for the ninth time in 19 days.
The bullpen has been taxed because Pirates starters have an efficiency problem. They entered tied with San Diego for fewest innings per start (5.3).
Burnett is averaging a career-best 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, but he also entered 10th in the National League in most pitches thrown per inning (16.8).
“Strikeouts are good, but you can fall in love with them,” Hurdle said before Saturday's game. “Two- and three-pitch outs are good, and those are probably what he's going to try to focus on a little bit.”
Burnett allowed just one run over seven innings, throwing 63 of his 100 pitches for strikes. He traded strikeouts — he had seven — for early contact. He needed just eight pitches in the seventh inning when he struck out pinch hitter Jimmy Paredes on four pitches, finishing him off with his sharp-breaking knuckle curve. He then induced a first-pitch groundout from former Pirates prospect Robbie Grossman with a fastball. He pitched seven innings for a fourth straight outing.
Burnett said he hasn't tried to become more efficient.
“I ain't changing nothing,” Burnett said. “I went seven innings. What do you want?”
Houston starting pitcher, former Pirate Erik Bedard, has been a model of inefficiency, averaging 20.4 pitches per inning entering Saturday. But Bedard was also more efficient Saturday.
After allowing back-to-back doubles to Andrew McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez in the first — Sanchez's double scored McCutchen — Bedard cruised until the sixth when Brandon Inge lined a two-out RBI single to left, scoring McCutchen to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. But for the first time this season, it was a lead the Pirates' bullpen failed to protect.