Lost weekend for the Pirates in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS -- It could have been much worse, I suppose. The Pirates could have played their game Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. They could have felt the full force of their disgusted home fans' anger. The Steelers will tell them how much that hurts.

Not that the Pirates' 9-2 loss wasn't awful. It completed their lost weekend here, three hideous, one-sided defeats that left them 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central Division race. For the second time in three games, manager Clint Hurdle surrendered and pulled his regulars early to rest them. That is never a good thing, especially not during a pennant chase.

The Pirates didn't pitch well against the Cardinals. They didn't hit. They didn't field. They didn't look anything like a playoff team. The way they are playing, that 82nd win might not come for a while. They are in Texas tonight for the first of three games against the Rangers, who are trying to catch the Oakland Athletics for first place in the American League West. After failing to do anything Sunday against Cardinals rookie starter Michael Wacha, who made his sixth big league start, the Pirates get to hack against Japanese wonder Yu Darvish tonight. Good luck to them with that.

"We didn't do much right here -- plain and simple as that," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said.

"We've got to be better. We will be better."

I'm not so sure.

It's easy to dismiss the rotten weekend as just three games in a long season, four if you count the loss Wednesday night in Milwaukee when staff ace Francisco Liriano was knocked around. But the Pirates haven't played good ball for a long time. They are 11-17 since Aug. 8. That hardly generates much confidence that they will be able to catch the Cardinals and hold off the Cincinnati Reds in the division race.

"We haven't been sharp in a lot of areas," Hurdle said. "We know what we need to do. We'll fix it and move on."

There is much to correct.

It all came apart for the Pirates at Busch Stadium III.

"We had no safety net," Hurdle said.

The usually reliable starting pitching was awful. A.J. Burnett gave up five runs and six hits in three innings Friday night. Jeff Locke allowed three runs in five innings Saturday night on three hits, four walks and a hit batter. Charlie Morton was tagged for five runs on six hits Sunday before leaving with a foot injury in the second inning. It will be a big blow if he has to miss a start or more because, at least until Sunday, he had been the team's most consistent starter.

The usually stout bullpen was lousy. It never slowed the suddenly potent Cardinals offense, which scored a total of four runs in three losses last week to the Reds. The bullpen gave up seven runs Friday night, two Saturday night and four more Sunday.

The usually solid defense was a mess. Andrew McCutchen foolishly threw to the wrong base Saturday night, allowing a runner to tag and go from first to second. Walker failed to turn a double play in the first inning Sunday, when it still was a game, his low throw to first skipping by Justin Morneau and allowing the Cardinals' second run to score. Pedro Alvarez later had a poor throw to first base, his 27th error of the season. Is that a ridiculous number or what?

And the hitting? Wasn't it supposed to be better with the new men on the roster? It wasn't. It was as sickly as it has been in a while.

Alvarez failed in the most important at-bat of the weekend, grounding out Friday night with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning. The Pirates didn't score their first run in that game until they were down, 5-0, then scored seven after they trailed, 12-1. They were shut out for the next 17 innings before scoring two runs in the ninth Sunday. Maybe it's understandable that they managed just two hits in seven innings off the Cardinals' best, Adam Wainwright, Saturday night. But two hits in seven innings off Wacha?

Like the rest of the Pirates, the new guys came up small at the plate. Marlon Byrd went 1 for 9 in the three games. Morneau went 0 for 10.

Now Darvish awaits with his 12-7 record, his 2.91 ERA and his best-in-baseball 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings.

That's actually a good thing, Hurdle said. The poor, beat-up Steelers have to wait eight days before they play again, all the while re-living the nightmare of their home loss Sunday to the Tennessee Titans. At least the Pirates get to play ball again tonight.

"You keep playing the game because you know what you're playing for," Hurdle said.

That 82nd win.

A playoff spot, which still seems inevitable.

And, yes, maybe even a division championship.

Hurdle promised the Pirates will show up at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. I'm confident predicting they will play better than they did here.

That's pretty safe, right?

They hardly can play worse.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published September 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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