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Analysis: What happened to Pirates' pitching?

| Monday, Aug. 8, 2011

So, what went wrong?

The obvious culprit in the Pirates' epic collapse, including the 7-3 loss to San Diego yesterday at PNC Park that extended a losing streak to 10 games, is the pitching that led to their stunning ascent to the top of the Central Division.

And the equally obvious explanation would appear to be fatigue, even if those taking the mound disagree.

"I wouldn't say that at all," Charlie Morton said. "I mean, you always get tired. Baseball's a game of peaks and valleys. But being tired as an excuse• No."

"Hey, I felt like Nolan Ryan last time I went out," Jeff Karstens said of his nine-run blow-up Friday.

Still, the results have been as cruel as the clear correlation: On July 25, the Pirates were 53-47 and in first place, the pitchers owning a 3.17 ERA. Since then, they are 1-12 and 10 games out of the race, the ERA at 6.19 for that span.

Some of that simply must be fatigue, as others in the organization will attest. But dig deeper with some advanced metrics, and it's easy to see there is an element of the Pirates' pitchers having been due some serious comeuppance:

• Through July 25, opponents had a .289 batting average on all balls put in play (BABIP), a statistic that distinguishes how much help a pitcher gets from his defense or from mere good luck. That figure was below the National League median of .295. Since July 25, it's a whopping .349.

• Some aren't even staying in the park. Through July 25, opponents homered on 9.2 percent of all fly balls, right around league average. Since then, they have homered on 15.2 percent, by far the worst such total in the past two weeks.

• The Pirates' pitch-to-contact staff averages just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, second lowest in the majors, which puts heavy pressure on the defense and on the pitchers to keep the ball in the ballpark.

• The Pirates have stranded 76 percent of their runners, second-best rate in the league, and that tends to be unsustainable.

"They'd all been so good for so long." general manger Neal Huntington said. "A variety of factors came together at one time and ... well, we've gotten our heads handed to us more often than we'd like."

About a month ago, management met to prepare for this possibility, based on the numbers.

"Our organization deals in a lot of those metrics, and we talked about how we'd pitched for three or four months and the expectancy as we moved forward," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Especially with a pitch-to-contact staff, you expect more contact, so you could anticipate more offense from the opponents. But, to the degree we've seen lately, it's been way more."

It has been 15 home runs in the past six games, one into the Allegheny River and several other moon shots. And even the weak-hitting Padres scored 28 times Friday and Saturday.

"Water finds its own level, as they say," Hurdle said. "If the water is really high, it's going to dip."

Although the pitchers are reluctant to acknowledge fatigue, pitching coach Ray Searage is not. But he doesn't point to arm fatigue.

"What I'm seeing is that our legs are a little bit tired, and that's going to relate to your arm," Searage said. "That's why they call these the dog days of August. We basically laid it all out there for the first three or four months, and you're starting to see that now."

Karstens has been the Pirates' best starter, but he also has stranded an incredible 85 percent of runners, and 17 of his 21 home runs were solo shots. All that boomeranged Friday, when nine of his 10 runners touched home plate and Chase Headley belted a grand slam. Karstens already has exceeded his innings total from last season, though not his pitch count, and he will need to show he can handle a full season.

"That's not an issue at all," Karstens said. "We'll all show that."

Maholm has been next best, but the Padres lit him up for seven runs in 6 2/3 innings Saturday, and his ERA swelled from 3.17 to 3.54. Kevin Correia, after a strong two months won him an All-Star invitation, now has a 4.78 ERA. Morton lost his dynamite sinker sometime in late May and didn't rediscover it until this past Wednesday. And James McDonald has been inconsistent and inefficient.

"This is something we're going to have to learn from," Searage said. "Some of these guys are experiencing this for the first time. My job is to stay positive."

In the bullpen, closer Joel Hanrahan has remained strong -- on those rare occasions he pitches, anyway -- but Jose Veras, Chris Resop and Daniel McCutchen have worn down, perhaps not coincidentally beginning with that 19-inning loss July 26 in Atlanta.

But this has been about the starting pitching, for better or worse, as those in the rotation seem to realize.

"It's on us," Maholm said. "We're the ones who go out there and pitch. We're going through a rough stretch. No one is happy, from the fans to anyone who plays the game. We have to turn it back around."

Additional Information:

Pitching collapse

The Pirates• pitching numbers on July 25, before this 1-12 collapse, and since:

July 25: 53 wins, 47 losses

Since then: 1 win, 12 losses


July 25: 3.39

Since then: 6.19

Opponents' average

July 25:  .257

Since then: .317

Home runs

July 25:  87

Since then: 21

Pitches per inning

July 25:  15.6

Since then: 16.9

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