Pirates touch on crushing 19-inning loss
It is hard to think of a more excruciating Pirates loss during the past 19 seasons than the 19-inning game July 26 at Turner Field in Atlanta.
The game ended on a gaffe by umpire Jerry Meals, who ruled Julio Lugo safe at home. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez's throw and catcher Michael McKenry's swipe tag were true. Meals' judgment was not.
The loss knocked the Pirates from first to third place, one game behind Milwaukee. A dozen games later, they were five games under .500, in fourth place and 10 games behind the Brewers.
Effectively, the season was over.
Are the Pirates still hung over from that long, lost night in Atlanta• Everyone in the clubhouse says no.
"You can't say that 19-inning game did anything," closer Joel Hanrahan said. "It was one game."
"I think it's coincidence," McKenry said. "We've had a lot of tough losses, a lot of times where the other teams get some breaks, and we didn't. That's just how baseball goes."
The Pirates lost 11 of their next 12 games, including 10 straight. The stretch included embarrassing back-to-back series sweeps at PNC Park by the lowly San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs.
"We knew that was going to be a tough stretch playing Atlanta and Philly on the road," Hanrahan said. "Those are two of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately, we didn't play any better when we got home."
Going into Thursday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pirates were 9-26 since the extra-inning loss.
Even when they were winning during the first 100 games of the season, the Pirates had a low-wattage offense. It's gotten only slightly worse.
Entering yesterday, the Pirates had a .239 team batting average during their previous 35 games. Their .301 on-base percentage in that stretch is well below the National League average of .319. Their .374 slugging percentage also is lower than the NL average, but it's 11 points higher than their season average.
The reason for the team's tailspin is poor pitching. The Pirates have a 5.21 team ERA and a 1.56 WHIP during the past month. The bullpen has been rocked. The starting rotation has been hit by injuries to Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens.
The 19-inning game certainly taxed the relievers, especially Daniel McCutchen, who worked the final 5.1 innings. But the pitching staff's woes, and the Pirates' free fall, began weeks earlier.
"I think the All-Star break is when it happened," Hanrahan said. "We were in a great spot, we were right there, and everyone felt good. When you're on a hot streak, you don't want to stop and take four days off."
The Pirates went 6-4 after the break, and there were subtle signs that the performance and the mood wasn't the same as before the All-Star Game. The 19-inning game might not have destroyed the Pirates' season, but it was an indication of what was to come.
— Rob Biertempfel
Rob Biertempfel's column
Despite flirting with first place until late July, the Pirates begin a September that holds no promise of October baseball. In that sense, it's a lot like the past 18 Septembers.
How will the players respond• They could go through the motions, as the 2009 team did. There's no difference between finishing third or fifth in the NL Central. It's been a long, exhausting season. Why not get an early jump on vacation?
Surely, the temptation will be strong. The Pirates got in from Houston around 3:30 a.m. Thursday, went to sleep as the sun came up and were at PNC Park at 2 p.m. for a makeup game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now it's on to Chicago for a three-game series against the Cubs.
However, I would be surprised if the players pack it in over the final 25 games. There still is 15 percent of the season. And a lot of jobs for 2012 are on the line.
"I like what I see, but I want to see everybody finish strong," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I want them to bring it every day. This isn't going to be a lab experiment. We're built to win games, and that's our first focus."
So many questions for Hurdle to answer. Is Alex Presley for real in left field• And, now that Matt Diaz has been traded to Atlanta, who'll be the fourth and fifth outfielders• Can Derrek Lee be enticed to return• Should management pick up Ronny Cedeno's $3 million option• How to upgrade the starting rotation to avoid another late-season fade• Are there roles next year for Brad Lincoln and Ross Ohlendorf?
"There's a lot out there for everybody," Hurdle said. "Guys need to finish well. For me, there's only one way to play the game. And we will continue to play that way until there aren't any more games."
Minor-league report: Robbie Grossman
Robbie Grossman was named to the Florida State League postseason all-star team this week, punctuating an outstanding year for the 21-year-old outfielder with High-A Bradenton.
Grossman is first in the league in games played (131), runs (125), walks (103) and on-base percentage (424), third in hits (143) and fifth in total bases (220) and is the team's active leader in home runs with 13. He has a .299 average with 56 RBI and 24 stolen bases, and his average has improved from the first half (.269) to the second (.330).
"Robbie has had a very productive year and made significant strides," Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark said. "He continues to improve his swing, especially from the left side, and his approach has evolved. He's always been a selective hitter, but he's learned when to be more aggressive and how to battle with two strikes better. He's had a very encouraging season."
The Pirates drafted Grossman in the sixth round (174th overall) of the 2008 draft. Third baseman Elevys Gonzalez was also named to the all-star team, making it the second straight year that Bradenton placed two players on the postseason team (Noah Krol and Quincy Latimore in 2010).
— Karen Price