Pirates waste strong Burnett start, fall again to Brewers at Miller Park
MILWAUKEE — The Pirates entered Friday playing perhaps their best baseball since Barry Bonds patrolled left field at Three Rivers Stadium.
But even at the top of their game, even when off to a historically good start, the Pirates still struggle in Miller Park and were again humbled by Brewers starter Marco Estrada.
Estrada did not allow a hit until the fifth inning when Neil Walker served a soft liner to left field with two outs. He didn't allow a run until Walker smashed an RBI double to the right-center track in the seventh, scoring Russell Martin. The right-hander led the Brewers to a 2-1 win Friday and lowered his career ERA against the Pirates to 2.06.
Estrada again baffled the Pirates with location and a deceptive changeup.
The league is batting just .131 against Estrada's changeup, and the Pirates were 0 for 7 against the pitch Friday, including a second inning in which Estrada got Brandon Inge, Clint Barmes and A.J. Burnett in succession to swing over the top of his changeup for strikeouts.
Estrada (4-2) allowed four hits and no walks over seven innings. Five of his eight strikeouts came via that pitch. And it was his changeup which played a role in why Pirates manager Clint Hurdle elected to keep left-handed sluggers Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones out of the starting lineup.
Estrada has reverse splits this season: Right-handers are batting .342 against him, and left-handers are struggling with his changeup, batting just .174.
“(The changeup) is over the top, and it has real good finish down,” Hurdle said. “It doesn't hold a plane. It's coming at you like a fastball, and the bottom falls out.”
One bit of good news for the Pirates was Walker's two-hit game. The club's starting second baseman entered just 5 of 42 (.119) since coming off the disabled list.
“There's a process to baseball, and you have to trust the process. You can't look at the numbers,” Walker said. “Timing wise, I do feel pretty good. But there's a rhythm to the game. There's a rhythm to the offensive end of it, (identifying) sequences that takes a little while.”
It was a difficult start to a challenging 26-game stretch for the Pirates, a period that includes 17 games against clubs in first place or within 1 1⁄2 games of first place. It's a stretch that contains 15-road games, including two more at Miller Park, where the Pirates are 8-47 since 2007.
The Pirates entered Milwaukee having won 12 of their past 16 to improve to 11 games over .500 for the first time this season and ahead of the club's 1992 pace when the Pirates were 26-21 through 47 games. But the recent hot stretch coincided with playing some of the weakest teams in baseball: the cellar-dwelling Cubs, the Astros and the fourth-place Brewers, Mets and Mariners.
If there is a market correction looming for the Pirates, it could come soon.
Burnett (3-5) showed few signs of regression Friday, allowing just three hits, two runs and two walks while striking out six over seven innings.
He pitched seven innings in a fifth straight outing, the type of efficiency Hurdle has sought from his ace.
“That's what's it's all about,” Burnett said. “You need to go to deep for your bullpen. Those guys have been working a lot.”
Burnett raised his league-leading strikeout total to 85 Friday, but he has not struck out more than seven in his last three starts. He entered with the second-worst run support in baseball (2.36 runs per start) trailing only Kyle Lohse. His only misstep, aside from already having to match up with Estrada in Miller Park, was allowing a two-run double to Alex Gonzalez in the second inning.
Said Hurdle: “(Estrada) had been tough on us.”