Bullpen steps up at end of road trip

Jackson, Capps come through; Andy LaRoche gets clutch hit

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ATLANTA -- To think that this series started with a 15-inning marathon that cleaned out the Pirates' bullpen. The Turner Field maintenance crew was mopping up the place around the time Jeff Karstens, a starter three days earlier, took the mound near midnight Monday.

By the end of this series, those boys in the bullpen cleaned up.

Pirates relievers factored in every decision in this series with the Atlanta Braves:

• Karstens lost a one-run affair in that 15th inning late Monday.

• Sean Burnett lost another one-run game Tuesday when he and Jesse Chavez could not keep the dam from leaking.

• Karstens came back Wednesday and spelled the new No. 5 starter who replaced him, Charlie Morton, to earn the victory in still another one-run decision.

• Finally, yesterday afternoon, Stephen Jackson, a loser in relief in Houston Sunday before the club came to Atlanta, followed Paul Maholm's seven sturdy innings to pull out a 3-1 victory thanks to Andy LaRoche's clutch hitting in a two-on, two-out, full-count ninth-inning situation.

Sure, you win some, you lose some.

But ... you complete more innings than the celebrated starting staff?

  • Game:Pirates vs. Detroit Tigers, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
  • Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (1-6, 5.54) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (6-4, 3.98).
  • Key matchup: The first-place Tigers, winners of five of their past seven, are led by Miguel Cabrera's .329 average, 11 home runs and 39 RBIs.
  • Of note: Detroit's coaching staff is dominated by former Pirates, including manager Jim Leyland, first base coach Andy Van Slyke, third base coach Gene Lamont, hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and infield instructor Rafael Belliard.

You yield fewer runs (four to their nine) and fewer hits (10 to 24) in your 201/3 innings (to their 20)?

You do all this after wearing everybody out with a four-hour, 46-minute first night in town?

Heck, the only Pirates reliever who was unused that long Monday night was Matt Capps, and he warmed up eight times and was the last one standing.

"Good week," said Capps, a west-suburban Douglasville, Ga., native who recorded saves No. 14 and 15 -- not to mention a play at first base, where replays seemed to show Kelly Johnson was safe -- to help the Pirates salvage back-to-back victories and go home with a 3-4 road trip.

"Probably the best job that was done all year [by the Pirates' bullpen] was in a game that we lost, Monday: To be able to pick up 15 innings. ... Then, [Wednesday], with Charlie hurting himself and us having to pick up eight innings. ... Guys stepped up and did a great job. Karstens coming in [Wednesday], that was pretty special, pretty sweet to see. Good week."

Manager John Russell said, "[That] 15-inning game could have really wrecked things. Those guys bounced back, they threw really well for us. We could've easily won all four; we could've easily lost all four."

To conclude a four-game series decided by the total difference of five runs, the Pirates' Maholm and Atlanta's Javier Vazquez put on a duel of matching two-hitters through five innings yesterday.

Vazquez maintained his before giving way to Rafael Soriano to open the ninth, having struck out 12 and yielding only a fifth-inning home run to Delwyn Young.

"He was on," said Young, whom Vazquez struck out in his at-bats before and after that homer off a fastball.

"He sent a lot of us back to the dugout with strike three. [Then came] that one mistake to tie it."

"It didn't look like we were going to get much on him," Russell continued about Vazquez.

"Took advantage of a pitch and hit it out. Got us right back and relaxed everybody again. To tie it up right there, it helped Paul, and I think it helped the rest of the team."

It seemed to Maholm as if Vazquez was "striking out everybody," hence the need for the left-hander to keep the Pirates in the game. Maholm yielded an unearned run in the fourth, when shortstop Jack Wilson was unable to field Matt Diaz's short ground ball and Jeff Francoeur's single to right scratched out a Braves run after Diaz had stolen second.

So the game stayed, at 1-1, until Soriano entered in the ninth with his microscopic 0.98 ERA and his nine consecutive outings without permitting a run.

But Andrew McCutchen poked a single past second baseman Johnson after fouling off a two-strike third pitch from Soriano. McCutchen advanced to second on Nyjer Morgan's bunt and took third on Freddy Sanchez's ground out.

Adam LaRoche drew an intentional walk, creating a center-stage moment for younger brother Andy LaRoche.

"I like that situation. I like when the crowd starts going crazy," said the younger LaRoche, whom Soriano and much of the Atlanta crowd thought was struck out by an earlier pitch called a ball.

"I just like that feeling of trying to quiet the crowd."

After his older brother advanced to third uncontested on a ball three, Andy LaRoche did that by pushing a full-count, two-out single past shortstop Yunel Escobar, scoring McCutchen and Adam LaRoche.

"Just trying to battle, battle," said brother Andy. Same as the Pirates' bullpen.

"Our bullpen has been phenomenal lately," Andy LaRoche said.

"Obviously, they struggled a little bit earlier, just like our hitters did. Starting pitching is still strong. Karstens. Maholm. And our relievers. It's great to have that reliability."

First Published June 12, 2009 4:00 AM


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