Maholm goes seven, but offense goes nowhere vs. Hampton
June 1, 2009 8:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Nyjer Morgan dives back to first base as Houston's Lance Berkman reaches to apply the tag off a throw from catcher Humberto Quintero in the ninth inning. Morgan was called safe.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is the temptation following any pitchers' duel to magnify the mistakes, no matter how minute.
For example, in the Pirates' 2-1 loss to the Houston Astros yesterday at PNC Park, Paul Maholm made one poor pitch in the second inning, and he and catcher Robinzon Diaz crossed signals for a critical passed ball in the seventh. Each cost the team a run, and that was all it took.
But perhaps it is smarter, sometimes, to look at the larger scope.
Consider this: Maholm's quality start -- six or more innings, three or fewer runs -- was the starting rotation's 29th of the season, second-most in all of Major League Baseball. Only the Toronto Blue Jays have more, with 30. And yet, in those quality starts, the Pirates' record is a pedestrian 15-14, including 5-12 in the past 17.
• Game: Pirates vs. New York Mets, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (1-6, 5.43) vs. RHP Livan Hernandez (4-1, 4.28).
• Key matchup: Snell has fared well against New York's top two bats, with David Wright and Carlos Beltran each 2 for 12 against him.
• Of note: The Mets, buoyed by Francisco Rodriguez's 14 saves and a megamillion-dollar bullpen that leads Major League Baseball with a 2.87 ERA, went 19-9 in May, including the current 5-1 roll.
In complete games, they are 1-3.
"Man, we've done this all year," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Our guy has a solid start, the other team's guy has a solid start, and we lose, 3-2 or 2-1 or whatever. And today's a perfect example: We were never in a position to win that game."
Which might sound crazy given that it was tied most of the way. But that was how hopeless the Pirates' offense looked against Houston's Mike Hampton, who gave up Nate McLouth's home run to lead off the first, then two more singles for the rest of his seven silent innings. There never was more than one runner aboard at a time, never anyone as far as second base, and the hit total wound up at four.
"We put no pressure on Mike at all, to make him bear down and have to make pitches," LaRoche said. "I mean, give Mike credit. But we put no pressure on him. None whatsoever."
Manager John Russell and others did credit Hampton.
"He changed speeds and kept us off-balance after Nate's home run," Russell said.
"The ball stayed down the whole time," McLouth said.
But the context was the elephant in the living room: Hampton now has held the Pirates to one run in 13 innings this season for a 2-0 record and 0.69 ERA. Against the rest of the National League, he is 0-4 with a 6.42 ERA.
He is 12-3 against the Pirates for his career, becoming the second pitcher in the past five decades -- Tom Glavine is the other -- to win eight in a row against them.
"I've played for so many teams and faced so many different lineups," Hampton said of facing the Pirates. "I don't think there's anything to it other than I was fortunate enough to make quality pitches and the defense played great behind me."
Houston's defense, particularly the infield handling Hampton's 17 ground-ball outs, was, in fact, solid.
Whatever the case, Russell has sounded increasingly tired of the same tale regarding his pitchers' feast-or-famine run support: The Pirates are batting .264, fifth-best in the league, and have an on-base percentage of .333 that is right at the league average. But their 216 runs rank 12th of 16 teams, partly because their 31 home runs rank 15th, partly because they either score in big bunches or barely at all.
As Russell put it after this one, "Our whole pitching staff has done a good job. We need to score a few runs for them."
McLouth's home run, his ninth, impressively landed on the concourse beyond right-center. He went 2 for 4 on the heels of a 1-for-25 slump that got him scratched Saturday night.
Houston scored in the second to tie on Humberto Quintero's two-out RBI single. Even with a runner at second and a base open, Maholm and the Pirates went after Quintero, No. 8 in the lineup, in hopes of having Hampton lead off the next inning.
"I didn't make the pitch I wanted to there," Maholm said.
The Astros scored an unearned run to decide it in the seventh: After one out, Hampton and Edwin Maysonet singled, and each advanced on the passed ball charged to Diaz, who was crossed up on Maholm's 1-1 sinker when Diaz had called for a slider.
"A miscommunication," Maholm said. "That shouldn't happen."
Sizzling Miguel Tejada capped a 5-for-12 series when he drove in Hampton by dropping a single just beyond desperately retreating second baseman Freddy Sanchez.
"That's how things have been going," LaRoche said. "Paul barely had a ball hit hard off him all day, and Tejada gets the winner off his knuckles."
Maholm, who is 3-2 and has not won since April 22, saw his seven innings -- one earned run, eight hits, two walks -- followed by spotless relief from Jesse Chavez, Evan Meek and Sean Burnett. That, too, was wasted.