Manager John Russell defended the Pirates' instruction regarding controlling opponents' baserunning, perhaps the team's most embarrassing fundamental shortcoming.
Only 10 runners have been caught stealing in 78 attempts, by far the worst rate in Major League Baseball.
"It's one of the things we've started to implement that was not here before, that we've tried to implement these three years," Russell said Saturday afternoon. "Unfortunately, we've had a little turnover, but we're starting in the minors and in the majors to get our pitchers to understand that we're trying to help them. But they still have to pay attention when guys are on base."
The pitchers have been Russell's focus in discussing this shortcoming all season, but he placed more emphasis on catcher Ryan Doumit -- who has caught just five in 61 steal attempts -- than usual this time.
"Ryan's just been erratic," Russell said. "I think he's had some opportunities to throw guys out, and he'll miss. Or sometimes, he doesn't have a chance. ... If we can get Ryan to be a little shorter in his footwork, we can start slowing them down. And it gets to the point where everybody's running, and the accuracy goes, because now you're trying to be too quick."
Regarding the pitchers, Russell praised starters Jeff Karstens and Brad Lincoln for keeping runners close and varying times to the plate, also citing "improvement" with Ross Ohlendorf, even though Ohlendorf has allowed a staff-worst 12 of 13 steal attempts when pitching. But the most striking -- and maybe damaging -- examples in the rotation are the regressions of Zach Duke and Paul Maholm: Both are left-handed and facing first base, both have been in the rotation for years, and both used to be far better at controlling runners and even picking them off.
Asked about those two being exploited, Russell replied: "I think everyone's getting exploited. That's why we have to continue to stress it. Whether opponents are picking up something on their move -- that's something we're trying to watch -- we've got to do a better job."
Russell described pitching coach Joe Kerrigan as having a plan to hold runners that is implemented through the minors. Not all the Pirates' workouts are witnessed by the media, but this facet is seldom seen being practiced. It is seen most often in the early part of spring training.
Might Russell stress this more next spring?
"It's been a big emphasis from day one," he said. "The biggest thing is trying to change mentality, what the guys are doing on the mound, and being aware of runners. And it's tough. If Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun is up with a man on first, your main concern is the hitter. You make a bad pitch and, next thing you know, it's a three- or four-run inning. On the other hand, you've got to be aware of the runners. We're really pushing it now, and we'll continue to push it. It will always be a big emphasis, as long as I'm here."
New catcher Erik Kratz made his first appearance in a major-league game Saturday night, at age 30, after nine years in the minors, and he promptly went 2 for 5 with an RBI and a spotless game defensively.
His first hit, a deftly struck hit-and-run liner to right-center in the fifth inning, was part of the Pirates' winning rally in the 12-6 victory against Houston.
His thoughts as he stood at first, with the crowd offering warm applause?
After a lengthy pause, he laughed.
"Is that a good enough answer?"
Kratz could be seen looking toward his family, which was leaping and embracing in the first-base boxes.
"All kinds of thoughts. I saw them over there, I was worried about the ball ... it was just a great moment."
• The New York Yankees, interested bystanders through most of the process involving elite Mexican amateur pitcher Luis Heredia, are getting more involved, according to a source. The Pirates and Toronto are the front-runners, with the Pirates the most aggressive the past two years. Heredia, a 15-year-old right-hander, is sure to get a bonus topping $2 million.
• Lastings Milledge's two-out, two-run single in the first inning raised his average with runners in scoring position to .363.
• Although the Pirates produced 17 hits, including five doubles, there was no home run, which means the steak of at-bats without a home run with a man on base extended to 1,076.