Pirates fall, but look ahead to a big week

Pirates are 8 wins better at season's midpoint than '06

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Having dispensed with yesterday's 3-2 toe-stubbing against Washington, the Pirates can now try to put their best foot forward this week in an effort to see if the rest of their season will have any relevancy.

"This will go a long way toward determining how interesting the second half of our season will be," manager Jim Tracy said.

Tonight, the Pirates begin a four-game series against Milwaukee, which leads the National League Central Division by 6 1/2 games over the charging Chicago Cubs. The Pirates, who have three games against the Cubs this weekend, trail the Brewers by 12 games.

"If we have a good week going into the All-Star break, we're looking pretty good," Jack Wilson said. "Last year, we had nothing [going for us] leading into the second half. It was all negative. And we went out and played awesome."

"Awesome" being the compilation of a 37-35 record after the All-Star break.

"And we could play even better than that," Wilson said. "Knowing that this team can repeat what it did in the second half last year with more enthusiasm, it could be good."

The Pirates didn't show much enthusiasm yesterday in being handcuffed for six innings by left-hander Mike Bacsik -- he of the .303 batting average against at game time.

They loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh against Bacsik, but managed just sacrifice flies by Wilson and pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit against reliever Luis Ayala to account for their meager offensive output.

"I thought we'd do better offensively than we did," Tracy said. "What it boils down to is, we didn't have enough offense."

That made "one stupid pitch" thrown by Paul Maholm a game-loser.

Maholm wiggled out of a monumental jam in the fourth inning by allowing just one run.

Singles by Washington All-Star Dmitri Young, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez loaded the bases with no outs.

Robert Fick's tap to the right side got Young home before Maholm ended the inning with two more ground balls.

Maholm zipped through the fifth inning and quickly got two outs in the sixth.

Then Fick flared a single into left field. That didn't seem menacing with .200-hitting rookie catcher Jesus Flores due up -- and Bacsik to follow.

Maholm jumped ahead of Flores 0-2, then hung a slider. Flores lined it just over the left-field wall for his first major-league home run.

"It was a slider that was supposed to bounce," Maholm said. "Apparently it didn't. That cost us the game."

"He made one mistake and had to pay for it," Tracy said.

That mistake helped get the Pirates to the halfway mark of the season with a 35-46 record -- eight wins better than their 27-54 ledger they lugged into the halfway point in 2006.

"Definitely things are better," Jason Bay said. "The way we played early [this season], that was a huge difference. And look at our starting pitching. Last year we had some guys who were still learning. Now [Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell], when they go out there, you have a pretty legitimate shot at winning every single day. The other guys haven't been as good as them, but they haven't been bad. I think that's the biggest thing.

"We went through a couple little spells where there were some games we could have won with a few runs or games where we had leads [and lost]. Switch two or three of those to wins from losses, and all of a sudden we're a lot closer than we are now."

"No question we're better," Wilson said. "We stumbled out of the gate. We didn't swing the bats, but our pitching was good. Our defense has been solid all year, which has been nice.

"Everybody in this clubhouse will tell you that we should have a better record. We had some games that got away from us. We've lost some heartbreakers. You look back and think, 'Man, if we could have won those games, we'd definitely be in a different situation.' "

"I see a lot of positives," Adam LaRoche said, "but I also see a lot of games that slipped away where myself or other guys had some chances to drive in runs or make some plays. We've had a ton of close games."

Yesterday's sleepwalk dropped the Pirates to 22-21 in games decided by one or two runs this season.

But LaRoche sees hope here.

"Oh, without a doubt," he said. "I don't know what it's going to take to get people to believe that -- the fans, us, the coaches, owners -- everybody. Hopefully, they do. Hopefully, that's the feeling right now.

"We have awesome core guys. The talent's here. The talent's great. And just as important is the chemistry on this team. You don't have the cliques that other teams have. You don't have the dissension in the clubhouse. It's an easy-flowing clubhouse.

"The only way is by doing it. That's it. Nobody's words. Nobody's mouth. It's going to be our record -- period. It's not going to be whether we led the league in home runs or earned run average at the end of the year. It's going to be record.

"That's the hardest part in getting over this hump. Once that happens -- this year, next year -- then I think it's a lot easier to take off. But it's getting there and proving to the fans that it's possible in Pittsburgh to win -- to be in the playoffs. But I like the track we're on."

Despite yesterday's derailment.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Jose Castillo ducks out of the way of a pitch thrown by Nationals reliever Chad Cordero yesterday at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

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Sanchez is an All-Star again

Pearce's stock on rise as he stars at Altoona

Bob Smizik: Majority silent in protest, but Pirates still should worry


Game: Brewers (RHP Jeff Suppan 8-7, 4.88) vs. Pirates (RHP John Van Benschoten 0-2, 4.30), 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Key matchup: Jason Bay against Suppan: Bay is 4 for 29 with a home run and eight strikeouts lifetime against Suppan.

Of note: Suppan is 2-0 against the Pirates this season. In his 10 starts since beating them May 5, he's 3-5 with a 6.71 earned run average. In 59 innings, he has yielded 73 hits, including 10 home runs, and 25 walks.

Starter Paul Maholm reacts after giving up a two-run homer to the Nationals' Jesus Flores in the seventh inning yesterday at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.Second baseman Freddy Sanchez went 0 for 4 yesterday against the Nationals at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.


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