The Pirates got the start they wanted from James McDonald.
But the offense couldn't give them much of anything else.
The bats were absent again, spoiling a solid outing by McDonald as the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs, 3-2, Thursday afternoon at PNC Park. It was the second hard-luck loss for a Pirates starter in three games after they failed to back up opening-day starter A.J. Burnett when he struck out 10 Monday.
"In games when our pitchers throw like that, you definitely want to help them out and score some runs," catcher Russell Martin said. "We just weren't able to do that."
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Pirates, 10:10 p.m., Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).
RHP Zack Greinke (15-5, 3.48 ERA in 2012) vs. LHP Jonathan Sanchez (1-9, 8.07).
- Key matchup:
Sanchez vs. OF Andre Ethier, who is 4 for 30 with 11 strikeouts against Sanchez, a former division rival with the San Francisco Giants.
- Hidden stat:
Greinke has made one career start at Dodger Stadium, allowing one earned run on nine hits.
The Pirates managed one hit and no runs through the first eight innings and never had more than one baserunner in an inning until a furious, but futile ninth-inning rally.
With the loss, the Pirates (1-2) dropped their first series of 2013. Now they must carry their lagging offense on their first road trip.
"There's definitely going to be games when they score five or six off of [Pirates starters], and we come in and score eight and nine," Gaby Sanchez said. "It's baseball. Sometimes the pitchers are going to dominate, and sometimes the hitters are going to dominate. We're definitely going to put them together."
While the Pirates tried to take advantage of opposing pitchers' mistakes, there haven't been many such opportunities.
Cubs opening day starter Jeff Samardzija always has tormented the Pirates, and he pitched eight scoreless innings Monday.
Travis Wood hasn't been as consistent against the Pirates, but, in his past two starts at PNC Park -- including the one Thursday -- he has pitched 12 scoreless innings, allowing a total of two hits.
"He was able to go in, go away," Sanchez said. "He really didn't leave any pitch down the middle. Even when he got behind in counts, he wasn't just giving in and letting you get a cookie right over the plate."
Wood allowed no runs on one hit in six innings, striking out four and walking two.
"We'll get our timing down and we'll be fine," Martin said. "But it's definitely too early to start pressing, that's for sure."
The offense's struggles upstaged McDonald's superb and much-anticipated start after his performances tailed off so abruptly in the second half last season..
McDonald surrendered one run on two hits in seven innings, striking out four batters and walking two.
In his first attempt to recapture the skills that propelled him to a 9-3 record and 2.37 ERA in the first half of 2012, McDonald was not a dominating, overpowering pitcher, but he was solid. He allowed more than one baserunner once and pitched 1-2-3 innings four times.
"I was going straight after guys, being aggressive," he said.
The Pirates nearly salvaged the game in the ninth just as they nearly did Monday.
They scored two runs off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol and put the tying runner on third and the go-ahead runner on first with no outs.
Pitching coach Chris Bosio made a visit to the mound, and Marmol said Bosio's advice was simple.
"Strike a guy out and get a groundball," Marmol recalled. "That's what happened."
Marmol got Pedro Alvarez to chase an 0-2 slider for the first out and Neil Walker to ground into a game-ending double play.
Two third-inning singles, including one from Wood, gave the Cubs the lead. After singling a changeup through the middle of the infield, Wood took second on David DeJesus' groundout to second. Five pitches later, Starlin Castro smacked a fastball on the ground and through the middle, scoring Wood.
Nate Schierholtz gave the Cubs (2-1) two key insurance runs in the ninth, hitting a two-out homer off Pirates reliever Jared Hughes. Schierholtz, who struck out to end the game Wednesday, smacked a 91-mph sinker that Hughes left up over the plate and sent it just over the center-field wall and into the Cubs bullpen.
"I threw the ball where he hits it really well," said Hughes, whose strength is his sinker. "I left it up, out over the plate. That's his strength. I need to get it down next time."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published April 4, 2013 7:30 PM