Pirates offense stays mostly on futility diet

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CINCINNATI -- Fast asleep in the Ohio humidity for most of the first two hours of this hotly anticipated series, the Pirates stunned a packed house at Great American Ball Park by swatting three Mike Leake pitches about 1,000 feet in a three-minute slice of the sixth inning.

Starling Marte homered and Andrew McCutchen homered and Russell Martin homered, turning an apparent Reds rout into the heavyweight bout this weekend ought to look like. Those were three thunderous counter-punches to the bases-loaded double Brandon Phillips launched in the fifth, the one that gave Cincinnati a 5-0 lead in a game when Pirates starter Francisco Liriano looked nothing like the All-Star Who Wasn't.

But those three minutes of offense were not the hyper-caloric appetizer; they were the totality of the Pirates' typical adult daily requirement of modest production, the soup, the salad, the desert, and the chronic indigestion.

This would be the seventh time in the past nine games that the Pirates had failed to score four runs, the exact circumstance in which they are now 16-30. This would be the 30th time in 94 games the Pirates struck out at least 10 times.

"We're playing against a great team," Phillips insisted in the Reds' clubhouse. "They are for real. I tell everybody, this Pirates team is for real. You saw Mike Leake was pitching a great game, but they started hitting him. That's what kind of team they are. They never give up."

No one should ever doubt what kind of hitter Phillips is if they consider the pitch he cleared the bases with, a diving, darting, venomous 92-mph fastball with a tail from Justin Wilson that the Reds second baseman rode hard into the gap between Marte and McCutchen.

"You gotta guess sometimes," Phillips said. "He throws real hard, and that was a great pitch. I just put the big part of the bat on the ball, but that at-bat could have gone either way. The guy's nasty. We don't see him much, but I think he's one of the best pitchers in the game."

If you only caught the top of the ninth, you saw another one, and you got the full-body blow of Pirates frustration that regularly accompanies Reds hammer Aroldis Chapman to the mound.

Chapman struck out Clint Barmes, fanned pinch-hitter Josh Harrison, and then dismissed pinch-hitter Michael McKenry with a weak pop-up that put Game 1 of this series in the Reds' pocket.

Clint Hurdle's team didn't waste a ton of opportunities, only every last one that didn't occur in the bombastic sixth inning.

They wasted a one-out double by Garrett Jones in the second when Jordy Mercer looked at a called third strike. Mercer, who won the shortstop job from Barmes but is playing second base in lieu of the injured Neil Walker, is 8 for 45 in July.

McCutchen's homer was his 11th, and Cutch homers have developed a curious statistical double edge.

Ten of them have come with the bases empty, which might lead you to conclude that Cutch ain't clutch in that regard, except that of those 11, seven have either tied the score or given the Pirates the lead.

But, with a chance to perhaps erase all of that Reds' lead one inning later, McCutchen chopped into a force play with two Pirates on, leaving matters to Pedro Alvarez, who celebrated with his first strikeout of the second half.

That was Alvarez's 110th strikeout, something so predictable against left-handed pitching that it's not even worth grumbling about that kind of thing anymore. But will that stop us?


In fact, this pivotal series began in a climate of discord regarding both teams' hitters, as critics on WLW, the Reds' flagship station, wore out Joey Votto for pregame hour after pregame hour.

The Reds' fan base is horrified not so much by Votto's strikeouts -- he brought 83 Ks into the series -- but by his 42 RBIs, one less than Todd Frazier.

I know.

I guess it's OK that Frazier has more RBIs than Votto, except that Votto is making $17 million this year on his merry contractual way to a series of Ohio summers for which he will make $25 million. If Votto finishes with 72 RBIs, the current projection, each will cost the Reds $236,111.11.

It probably didn't help anybody that Reds legend Pete Rose went on the station during the break with the opinion that Votto will be a great leader some day. Implication: Not, you know, these days.

If the Reds are going to overtake the Pirates in the strenuous National League Central Division race, they're going to need more than leadership. They will need a return to able status of several key components before July turns to August and August to September.

They are going to need cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick, who has played one game so far, and they're going to need Chris Heisey, who stepped in for Ludwick and then missed two months. They're going to need to get starting pitcher Johnny Cueto off of the disabled list and maybe he should bring relievers Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton with him.

And, at the same time, it's altogether possible they won't need any of that if the Pirates are going to be content to display this kind of desultory offense.

So to start the so-called second half, the Pirates put on a convincing demonstration of Murphy's Law. What could happen to this team? They suddenly could have poor starting pitching, next to no offense, and a bench that stinks.

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Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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