Understandably, there was a lot not to like about the game last night at PNC Park. Not only did the Pirates lose to the Milwaukee Brewers, 7-6, which was their third straight defeat, there was more than just the score not to like: For example:
• Starting pitcher Jeff Locke raised more red flags with another poor performance -- 4 2/3 innings, eight hits, five runs -- and his future in the rotation has to be in question
• The Pirates bullpen did something it rarely has done -- gave away a game -- as first Justin Wilson and then Bryan Morris allowed the Brewers to take late leads.
On the positive side:
• Pedro Alvarez had a rare four-hit night and hit his 32nd home run, to tie the game at 6 in the seventh, thus raising the hope that he's off on a long overdue tear.
• Neil Walker smacked a three-run homer over the right-field stands and make an excellent, head-ups play in the field.
It was great theater, if not great baseball, but now it's on to the rest of the season. Newly acquired outfielder Marlon Byrd is expected to join the team tonight for the second game of the Milwaukee series and hopefully give it a much-needed boost. His presence raises questions about the makeup of the lineup, which, in turn, raise interesting questions of their own.
For example: Who leads off until Starling Marte returns, which now figures to be some time around Sept. 10?
If he's in the starting lineup, Jose Tabata is the most likely candidate, although not for any of the normal reasons that often go with batting first: speed, ability to steal, a special skill at getting on base. If Tabata is not in the lineup, it becomes even harder to find a prototypical leadoff batter. Walker and Russell Martin would be the leading candidates, although Walker has never been in the No. 1 spot in the lineup to start a game and Martin has done it only 38 times.
Here's just a guess on how manager Clint Hurdle's lineup will look against right-handed pitching:
1. Tabata, RF; 2. Walker, 2B; 3. Andrew McCutchen, CF; 4. Alvarez, 3B; 5. Byrd, LF; 6. Martin, C; 7. Garrett Jones or Andrew Lambo, 1B; 8. Jordy Mercer SS.
Against a left-handed pitcher, which is what the Pirates will face tonight in Tom Gorzelanny:
1. Tabata; 2. Mercer; 3. McCutchen; 4. Byrd; 5. Alvarez; 6. Gaby Sanchez; 7. Martin; 8. Walker.
The acquisition of Byrd could deal another bad hand to Lambo, who had two hits and scored two runs last night. He was due to get steady work in right field and with it perhaps a chance to find his power stroke. But with Byrd on board, Lambo falls from No. 3 outfielder to No. 4.
Which is why I penciled him in as a possible alternative to the dying-alive Jones at first base against right-handers. I know Lambo has played the position. I have no idea how well he has played it. If he can play it a bit, he deserves time over Jones. The Pirates have given Jones all the time they can afford to find his stroke. Lambo has three hits in his past six at bats. Jones has three hits in his past 34 at bats.
Of course, first Lambo has to stick with the team. It was a foregone conclusion that Felix Pie would lose his roster spot to Byrd. But Pie had two hits last night (although one was a gift from the official scorer) and is 4-for-9 since joining the team a week ago.
The Pirates fell 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis, which beat Cincinnati, 6-1. The Cardinals, for the moment, look formidable. They've won nine of their past 11 and their turnaround, after a long stretch of poor play, coincides with the return to the lineup of catcher Yadier Molina, who is 17 for his past 42 (.407) and making a strong rush at McCutchen's MVP lead.
The Cardinals are at PNC Park for three games this weekend. But there's more pressing business at hand: Two with the Brewers as the new-look Pirates take the field.