Sweep falls short
Despite hitting a grand slam and helping build a six-run first-inning lead, Jason Bay never sensed the Pirates had a series sweep against the slumping Cincinnati Reds in the bag.
The All-Star outfielder's worst fears were realized when the Pirates crumbled and lost, 9-8, to a Reds team that had lost five in a row and was struggling mightily to score runs.
The Reds, held to 10 runs during their losing streak, erased 6-0 and 7-3 deficits and took the lead for good with four runs in the seventh inning off relievers Matt Capps (1-1) and Damaso Marte.
"I told someone in the second inning that a 6-0 lead is not comfortable against these guys," Bay said. "Then -- boom! -- there's a two-run homer, and it's a ballgame. With a team like that, there's never a lead that's too safe. They got one here, two there and we weren't getting much done.
"It was only a matter of time until they caught us."
Jason LaRue's two-run homer in the second began the Reds' comeback and was one of a career-high four hits he had on the day. He represented a microcosm of the Reds' struggles, taking a 1-for-18 slump into the game.
The Reds added a run in the fourth. After Jeromy Burnitz answered with a solo homer, the Reds tacked on two more runs against starter Victor Santos in the fifth, trimming the deficit to 7-5.
That set the stage for the seventh. The Reds tied the score with two runs off Capps, then went ahead when Ken Griffey Jr. flipped a two-out, two-strike pitch from Marte into left field for a two-run single. Bay tried to make a diving catch, but the ball landed in the grass and rolled under his glove.
The Pirates had been 11-1 when leading after six innings. Instead, they found themselves trailing after seven. Not a good sign, considering they are 0-26 in such situations.
"The bullpen has been our rock, but they haven't had many leads to protect," Bay said. "It would be foolish to think we'd go all year and have the bullpen hold every lead."
Santos' pitching and an offense that went into hibernation after the first inning had just as much culpability. Santos was charged with nine hits and five runs, sending his ERA to 5.69.
"I didn't change," Santos said when asked whether he pitched less aggressively after being handed the 6-0 lead. "I kept the same game plan. They just put the ball in play and got some hits."
The Reds' 16 hits were a season high. They also were the recipients of five walks and a hit batsman, which accounted for more baserunners than Pirates manager Jim Tracy could digest.
"That's a ton," Tracy said. "This is a club that has won (24) games, and they've done it with their bats."
Bay pointed to a series of missed scoring chances after the first inning. The Pirates couldn't generate add-on runs in the second and third when they, respectively, wasted a leadoff single and one-out double.
"There wasn't a total sense that we've got this won," Bay said. "We had a chance to get a few more and bury them, and we didn't do it."
By the time the Pirates did get back on track, it was too late. Jose Bautista's sacrifice fly in the eighth pulled the Pirates within one, but Freddy Sanchez's leadoff double in the ninth went for naught.
Pinch-runner Nate McLouth was perched on third with one out when Burnitz grounded to first and Ronny Paulino bounced a game-ending grounder to second.
It looked like the Pirates might celebrate their first three-game series sweep since July 2004 when they sent 11 batters to the plate in the first against former teammate Dave Williams. Instead, there was nothing but silence in the Pirates clubhouse after the next eight innings unfolded.
"When you put yourself in a position to sweep," Bay said, "saying you won the series doesn't have that much meaning."