Pirates' feast-or-famine offense dry in 5-1 loss

Output vs. Twins' Blackburn was 21st of two or fewer runs

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Feast or famine, indeed.

The only thing consistent about the Pirates' offense, as was evident again yesterday in the 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome, is that it is maddeningly inconsistent.

Three home runs one day, barely a bloop the next.

Chasing someone's ace one day, silenced by a no-name the next.

"It's kind of hard to figure out, to be honest," third baseman Andy LaRoche said. "How many times have we had two runs or less?"

This one, in which Minnesota's Nick Blackburn pitched a six-hit complete game and lost his shutout on Adam LaRoche's RBI single with two outs in the ninth inning, marked the Pirates' 21st occasion of two or fewer runs.

And that raises this wild statistic: The Pirates are 20-0 when scoring seven or more runs, 11-35 with six or fewer. Such a disparity would appear to imply that they need a ton of offense to overcome lousy pitching, but that, of course, is far from the case given the quality of the starting rotation.

So, what is it?

  • Game: Pirates vs. Colorado Rockies, 9:10 p.m., Coors Field.
  • TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (6-5, 4.56) vs. RHP Jason Marquis (8-4, 3.77).
  • Key matchup: What else? Pirates vs. Jim Tracy. Since taking over as Colorado's manager, the Rockies are 15-5, including the 11-game winning streak that ended Tuesday and matched the longest of the year in Major League Baseball.
  • Of note: Andrew McCutchen is not exactly cowering early in his career, carrying into this series a seven-game hitting streak and having at least one hit in 12 of his first 14 games for a .333 average.

A few theories ...

1. Not enough power.

The three home runs Wednesday in the 8-2 victory notwithstanding, the Pirates have a total of 40 that is second lowest in Major League Baseball.

"Here's the question you should ask: In those 20 wins with the seven runs or more, in how many of those games did we go deep?" shortstop Jack Wilson said.

The answer: 14 games.

"When we hit homers, we win," Wilson continued. "But we're not a home run hitting team. We have to go base to base to make things happen. Why do you think we have Andrew McCutchen and Nyjer Morgan in the top two spots? We have to get singles and doubles."

2. Quality opposing pitching.

This theory fizzles in a hurry, if only because the Pirates have beaten the elite likes of Johan Santana, Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano and, yet, they have been mowed down by people with 5-plus ERAs.

Blackburn does not fit either category, as he is 6-2 with a 3.09 ERA, but the complete game was his first in the majors.

"We do struggle a little against guys who are ground-ball pitchers," Morgan said. "You know, those guys with the slow stuff."

Blackburn does fit that category, as he recorded 17 groundouts and needed only 107 pitches to go the distance.

3. Too many lineups.

One sure way to create inconsistent offense is to change the players and the order too often.

Manager John Russell's lineup for this one was his 50th in the Pirates' 66 games, and that is not counting the pitcher's spot.

Yesterday, he again gave second baseman Freddy Sanchez the day off, as well as outfielder Delwyn Young. Sanchez had eight hits in his past 20 at-bats, Young 15 in his past 32.

Russell confirmed afterward that both were healthy.

His stance is that he likes to keep his bench involved, and that played out yesterday with Ramon Vazquez at second and Brandon Moss, who is now on the fringe, in right.

But can a team with such a ragged offense afford it?

Russell has been atypically critical of his offense in the past week, but not this time.

"I thought Blackburn was very efficient," he said. "We had maybe two or three balls all day that we hit hard."

"He stayed ahead of us, made us swing at his pitch," Andy LaRoche said. "And he had a really good sinker."

The same could not be said for the Pirates' Zach Duke, charged with three runs and seven hits over six innings, largely because his sinker stayed up.

He allowed Justin Morneau's RBI double in the first, loaded the bases before giving up a run on a double play in the third, then elevated a sinker on Michael Cuddyer's solo home run to center in the sixth.

It was the sixth home run Duke has given up in three starts, something seldom seen even when he struggled the previous three summers.

"If you look at all of those home runs, you'll see a pitch left up," Duke said. "That's what this one to Cuddyer was, a sinker that stayed up. And he hit it far."

Brian Buscher's two-run home run off Jesse Chavez in the eighth capped the scoring.

Minnesota took two of three, handing the Pirates their 13th consecutive road series loss in interleague play. They have not taken one of these since June 13-15, 2003 against Tampa Bay -- back when the Rays were last-place peers -- in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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