Ninth-inning collapse sends Pirates to 4-3 loss in Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE — What was a nearly automatic formula for victory last season — handing the ball to the Pirates' bullpen — has become an entirely suspect process in 2014.
The end-game struggles have become something of an epidemic as the Pirates blew a baseball-worst 10th save in a 4-3 walk-off loss to the Brewers on Thursday.
After an encouraging start from Wandy Rodriguez and three dominant innings from relievers Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, Mark Melancon inherited a one-run lead and faltered in the ninth inning.
Melancon allowed a leadoff single to Ryan Braun and then walked Jonathan Lucroy and Mark Reynolds to load the bases with no one out. Khris Davis followed by lining a game-winning, two-run single to center. Melancon entered walking 0.47 batters per nine innings.
“He's a human being, and he just didn't have his best stuff today,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The walks are uncharacteristic.”
The blown save was Melancon's second of the season in filling in for injured closer Jason Grilli.
Dating to last season, when Melancon also subbed for Grilli, Melancon has recorded 21 saves, but he's also blown seven saves. Is there something different about pitching the ninth inning?
“No,” said a sullen Melancon when meeting with reporters. “I was just pulling it. Two walks aren't going to raise any red flags for me.”
Hurdle said the blown save issue has been bullpen-wide. Grilli has three. Watson, Bryan Morris and Melancon have two blown saves apiece, and Wilson has one.
“Ten (blown saves) is an uncharacteristic number for us,” Hurdle said. The Pirates had 15 all of last season.
Had the Pirates converted saves at a league-average rate, they would be 21-19, not the reality of 17-23 entering a trip to Yankee Stadium.
Overshadowed by the blown save was that the Rodriguez who showed up Thursday had been missing since he left a start with elbow pain June 5 last season in Atlanta.
In making his first start in nearly a month since being placed on the disabled list with right-knee inflammation, Rodriguez showed increased velocity and improved location. Rodriguez came in with a 7.65 ERA on the season.
Rodriguez entered with a fastball averaging 87 mph, down 2 mph from his 2013 average. The Pirates had no idea if the velocity would improve or if this was a new reality. There was perhaps a long exhale from the visiting dugout as Rodriguez's fastball sat 89-90 mph and touched 91 on occasion Thursday, in line with his 2013 velocity.
He allowed four hits, two runs and a walk over five innings, striking out four.
“I don't put too much attention on my speed. I put more attention on that I located the ball wherever I wanted to,” Rodriguez said. “I only made two mistakes.”
There were still two flat offerings. Rickie Weeks homered off Rodriguez in the third, and Martin Maldonado homered in the sixth to tie the score 2-2.
After the homer to Maldonado, Rodriguez responded by striking out the side. Logan Schafer whiffed on a sharp curveball. Rodriguez froze Yovani Gallardo with an 89 mph fastball on the inside corner, and Weeks struck out swinging on a curve to end the inning.
The Pirates also took advantage of home-run happy Miller Park. Tony Sanchez launched a two-run homer off Gallardo, the catcher's first home run of the season, to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead in the fifth.
In the sixth, Gaby Sanchez homered off Gallardo to stake the Pirates to a 3-2 lead. But for the 10th time this season, the Pirates failed to hold a late-inning lead.