Whatever the Pirates' primary problem in their 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros yesterday at PNC Park, it surely was not effort.
If anything, they might have been guilty of trying too hard.
Start with the most glaring example, Sean Burnett's allowing Lance Berkman's decisive three-run home run in the sixth inning ???
The score was 3-3, and Burnett, who had been near-perfect through four appearances, got two quick outs. But Michael Bourn hustled a double out of a shot up the middle, and Miguel Tejada walked.
Berkman was next and dragged a highly uncharacteristic .200 average to the box. He fell behind, 1-2, but reached down to uppercut Burnett's slider well into the left-field bleachers.
- Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (1-0, 1.32) vs. RHP Jair Jurrjens (2-0, 2.45)
- Key matchup: Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Doumit each went 3 for 5 vs. Jurrjens last season.
- Of note: Maholm can record his 20th career victory at PNC Park, which would tie Josh Fogg for the most by any Pirates pitcher. Maholm and Zach Duke each have 19.
"I'm really frustrated right now," Burnett said. "Just for the fact that I got two quick outs and kind of gave the game away. You've got to finish the inning."
He had thrown a slider with the previous pitch, too.
"I was looking to bury it in the dirt, just like the one before. Kind of left it out there for a veteran hitter, and he made me pay."
That previous slider, as catcher Jason Jaramillo recalled, was "just devastating" in its bite.
"But Sean might have been trying to outdo it with the one right after it," Jaramillo added.
"Yeah, probably," Burnett agreed.
The hitter seemed to recognize all this, too.
"If it doesn't stay up, I probably miss it," Berkman said. "You don't hit home runs on good pitcher's pitches. It's usually a mistake. He wanted it down and in."
Starter Jeff Karstens put in his extra effort, too, preparing three weeks for his season debut with side sessions and the like. But he lasted only four innings and was charged with three runs on four hits, including Hunter Pence's impressive home run into the left-field rotunda in the second.
Karstens had not faced major leaguers since a March 31 Grapefruit League outing, and the rust showed through five walks and only 47 of 87 pitches registering as strikes.
"It's just a matter of competition," Pirates manager John Russell said. "You can pitch all you want on the side, it's not the same. When he was on, though, the ball was coming out of his hand really well, and that's a good sign for his next time."
"I did my work. I prepared," Karstens said. "But I've got to do better. I really let the bullpen down."
Still, the Pirates were tied, 3-3, upon Karstens' exit, thanks largely to Nyjer Morgan: He began a 3-for-5 day with a double and run in the first, then rapped an RBI triple in the next inning. Also in that first inning, Adam LaRoche rapped the first of two doubles to score Nate McLouth from first.
All that came off Houston's Russ Ortiz, whose rust was far deeper than Karstens' in that he had not started since Aug. 20, 2007, after missing all of last season to elbow surgery. Ortiz lasted 4 2/3 innings and was no more effective than his counterpart.
But the Astros' bullpen was, and the Pirates would have only two more real cracks ???
In the sixth, they had runners at the corners, but Jaramillo bounced into a double play.
The next inning brought the final example of futile effort: With two aboard and one out, Freddy Sanchez dueled Houston reliever Chris Sampson through a remarkable 17-pitch at-bat that drew loud applause and chants of "Fred-dy!" from the 13,877 on hand. Not once did he swing and miss, fouling off 13 pitches, nine of those after the count was full.
Alas, it ended with a flyout to center.
"A great effort," Russell called it. "It would have been nicer if it ended with a hit, obviously. That was a big moment in the game."
"That was a tough battle, man," Sampson said. "We kind of smiled at one another a couple times during the at-bat, but that was a lot of fun. I threw my whole repertoire. I threw curveballs early, then sliders, sinkers, four-seamers ... I was wondering what pitch I could invent. I didn't know if should go sidearm or underhand it to him so he could put it in play."
The Astros took two of three in the series.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .