CINCINNATI -- What the Pirates and Reds have established this weekend beyond even unreasonable doubt is that, while there is no margin for error within their peculiar National League Central Division synergy, they remain perfectly willing to make them by the dozen.
Plenty of physical errors, a plenary of mental errors, errors so downright erroneous they are sometimes contagion to errors of umpiring and perhaps even of landscaping, witness the swatch of infield dirt that brought Andrew McCutchen crashing onto his belly, turning a triple into a critical seventh-inning out.
"Incredible, wasn't it?" manager Clint Hurdle barked Saturday after the Reds booted and scooted to a paper-thin 5-4 victory. "I mean, [McCutchen was] running too fast for his own self; I don't think there was even gonna be a throw to third. He ends up just goin' down. Just one of those things that make you go, 'Huh?' during the course of game."
Everything the Pirates can't afford to do, everything they can't afford to have happen, is suddenly off to a rolling start in the worst possible place at a terribly inopportune moment.
So wins after 12 episodes against the Reds are 6-6, runs are 44-42, Cincinnati, and Saturday's sprawling five-hour epic began with A.J. Burnett matched against Mat Latos, two formidable right-handers who can not only match each other stat for stat, pretty much, but tat for tat as well.
That Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman again snuffed a Pirates ninth with another storm of 101-mph pitches might be the freshest annoyance in the memory today, and the fact that the Pirates left another dozen runners on base with their patented imitation of the Penguins power play remains the club's chronic pathology.
But the inalterable course of the second game of this series got set in the first inning, sandwiched around a 77-minute rain delay.
The game was exactly one pitch old when Starling Marte dropped a bunt in front of Reds third baseman Jack Hannahan, whose lunging throw to first did not appear to arrive before Marte, but it looked that way to first base umpire James Hoye.
Because Marte was out, he did not advance when Latos walked Jose Tabata, and he did not score when McCutchen lined a 2-2 pitch to center for a single, and the Pirates did not lead, 1-0, because Pedro Alvarez struck out his way to 0 for 8 since the Home Run Derby and because Latos got Russell Martin to pop out to center.
And thus our theme was firmly established.
When Cincinnati's Chris Heisey pushed a bunt right to Burnett in the bottom of the inning, Burnett turned to throw to third, where Alvarez somehow wasn't. His throw to first was then late, which is why Shin-Soo Choo was safe at third and why the Reds led, 1-0, after Joey Votto's grounder scooted under Jordy Mercer's glove for the first charged error of the game. Burnett couldn't escape that first until the Reds led, 4-0 -- four runs being generally sufficient to beat the Pirates two or three times.
"You don't like when you're not making plays, and I think going in when there's a bunt like [Heisey's], you're just going to take the out at first," Hurdle said. "But A.J. was looking aggressive, and obviously we weren't all lookin' aggressive. Those kinds of situations, we honestly self-evaluate and there [are] a number of spots we know we'll have to handle differently and better going forward."
Hurdle seemed to be willing to put the spark for that first-inning conflagration on Burnett, but most of the balance of the chutes-and-ladders narrative was attributable either to stone bad luck or the Reds' unwillingness to make enough errors of their own to give the game away.
They made two in the ninth to put runners on the corners with no one out -- "as good a position as you could want to be in" according to Hurdle -- but neither the 0-for-5 Martin, nor the 3-for-his-last-38 pinch-hitter Michael McKenry nor Mercer could get McCutchen in from third to tie the score.
From the No Joy Luck Club came Mercer's third-inning double, which bounced over the right-center wall as Garrett Jones was galloping home. Jones went back to third on the book rule and the Pirates wound up leaving the bases loaded. By contrast, Zack Cozart's leadoff double an inning later fell in a position where it kissed just enough left-field chalk line to stay fair, and only a great play by Clint Barmes in that inning kept Cincinnati within range.
McCutchen's second-inning home run, his 12th, was the 11th he has hit with the bases empty.
This has become a real statistical burr for the Pirates because it's not much better with Alvarez. For his 24 home runs, exactly 10 runners have been on base. The Pirates have launched five home runs in the first two games of this series, none with a single man aboard.
"That's not the way you want to get out of the shoot," Hurdle said, referring to both the second half and Saturday's portentous first inning. "We [have] been pretty good at putting things behind us and we created a number of innings for ourselves, but we just weren't able to get the hit when we needed one, and multiple different guys had that opportunity."
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published July 21, 2013 4:00 AM