It was a sweet, sun-drenched opening day for baseball in Pittsburgh, and it nearly was one in which the Pirates raised their arms for the most stunning of celebrations.
Instead, they were left putting those arms, in consolation, on the shoulders of two reeling rookies.
And shaking their heads at how a victory that was a 90-foot sprint from fruition could fizzle into a 10-8, 12-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs yesterday at PNC Park.
"It's a tough sport, man," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It can eat you up."
The first to get eaten up on this day was starter Tom Gorzelanny, having been torched for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings.
"I take full responsibility for us losing this game," he said.
Even so, the responsibility -- and, surely, the burden -- ended up shared by those rookies: Shortstop Brian Bixler, promoted Sunday from Class AAA Indianapolis, failed to score what should have been the winning run from third base. And reliever Evan Meek, the struggling Rule 5 draft pick, went wild again at the end.
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (0-0, 3.18) vs. RHP Ryan Dempster (1-0, 1.50).
Start with Bixler ...
The Pirates had roared back from the 7-0 hole that Gorzelanny dug and tied the score, 8-8, in the seventh when Jose Bautista doubled and later scored after Chicago second baseman Mark DeRosa muffed a grounder.
And they appeared very much poised to walk off with a victory in the ninth.
Ryan Doumit led off by lining a double, and Bixler, a consistent base-stealer in the minors, was sent to pinch-run. He took third on Xavier Nady's willful grounder to the right side and was one base away.
After Doug Mientkiewicz was intentionally walked, Bautista put down a surprise bunt up the first-base line toward Derrek Lee, with an eye toward catching the Chicago infield off guard and giving Bixler a chance to score.
Bixler broke initially, hesitated and went back to the bag. Lee scooped up the ball and tagged Bautista for the easy second out. Luis Rivas grounded out to end the inning, and Bixler was booed loudly by the overflow crowd of 37,491.
The simplest explanation came from manager John Russell, who acknowledged "this was the kid's second game in the majors" but did not excuse the play: "If he takes off right away, it's over. Bixler just froze."
No one disagreed, including Lee, who said, "I'm not going to get him out there."
But there was a little more to it, as Russell and others detailed ...
The play was one the Pirates had rehearsed all spring, including while Bixler still was in the major-league camp. Typically, it calls for the batter, with a man at third and less than two outs, to use his discretion when deciding to bunt. The runner is to break on contact, then go all out once he sees the ball is on the ground and away from the pitcher.
Sometimes, such as when the Pirates did it successfully in the season opener in Atlanta -- with Bautista batting and Nady running -- each receives a signal from third base coach Tony Beasley.
Neither had a signal this time.
"Jose went on his own," Beasley said. "And it's up to Bix to read the play."
Beasley also took some blame himself, as he did not react to the bunt, either.
Once Bautista was tagged out, he looked over his shoulder to see Bixler still at third and was visibly displeased.
That did not appear to change much afterward.
"It's a play that, if he breaks, we get a run out of it," Bautista said. "I don't know what happened on the other end. I couldn't tell you."
Bixler's explanation was as simple as Russell's.
"It just kind of caught me off guard," Bixler said. "That's about it. I didn't really expect it. I just kind of stopped and let the play go as it did."
That having failed, the Pirates leaned on continued good work from their veteran relievers to string together five zeroes to take the game to the 12th.
Problem was, by the time closer Matt Capps pitched two innings, Russell had only Meek for the 12th. Starter Paul Maholm, who pitched Saturday, had begun tossing in the bullpen, but he would enter only if the game had gone much longer.
As Russell put it, "We were out of arms."
And Meek, as has been the case in all three of his outings, was never in control in handing the Cubs two runs without a hit.
Ryan Theriot drew a walk to open it, then stole second during Alfonso Soriano's four-pitch walk. Each advanced on a wild pitch. After an out, Lee was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Ramirez lined a sacrifice fly to right. A five-pitch walk to DeRosa brought another run.
Final line for Meek: One inning, five walks, two wild pitches.
How much longer can the Pirates carry him, even though he must be returned to the Tampa Bay Rays unless he stays on the roster all season?
"We've said all along: He has to pitch," Russell reiterated. "We can't hide him."
Meek was disconsolate afterward, silently staring into his stall for a half-hour.
"I was just fighting myself out there. Trying too hard," he said eventually. "But tomorrow's another day."
Capps spent a few minutes with Meek in the immediate aftermath.
"That kid's got a good arm, and he'll be a good pitcher," Capps said. "And I told him that."
LaRoche offered similar encouragement for Bixler.
Nate McLouth again was the catalyst, going 3 for 6 with a triple, a walk and two RBIs, to raise his average to .441.
Chicago manager Lou Piniella praised the Pirates for their persistence -- "Opening day in Pittsburgh, you have to give them credit for coming back," he said -- and Russell sounded a similar note.
"There's a lot positive to take out of this," Russell said. "It might not seem like it now, especially for a couple guys, but we shouldn't lose sight of what we did to get back into that game."
First Published April 8, 2008 4:00 AM