John Russell could plainly see, from the Pirates' dugout, that Matt Morris was not as sharp as he had been.
So could the 9,798 in attendance at PNC Park, no doubt.
But no less obvious was that there was little alternative but to leave him on the mound through what proved to be a five-run sixth inning that defined the 7-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs last night.
Consider Russell's three options:
A. Summon one of his best relievers.
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (0-1, 9.00) vs. RHP Edinson Volquez (2-0, 2.69).
- Key matchup: The weekend will be defined by how the Pirates handle Cincinnati's suddenly formidable pitching, including 22-year-old rookie Johnny Cueto -- the Sunday starter -- and Volquez, the 24-year-old rookie acquired in the trade that sent Josh Hamilton to the Texas Rangers. Those two have a combined 1.92 ERA, 26 strikeouts and two walks.
- Of note: Jason Bay needs one more home run for his 48th at PNC Park, which would break a tie with Craig Wilson for the most of any player.
The problem: The bullpen had logged an arm-numbing 19 2/3 innings the previous two games. Tyler Yates and Phil Dumatrait were unavailable, and the rest of the reliable pitchers, who had been used nearly as much, would be needed to protect the lead in later innings.
B. Turn to Evan Meek, his only fresh arm out there.
The problem: The Pirates' beleaguered Rule 5 draft pick was coming off that five-walk home opener Monday and had a 27.00 ERA.
C. Stick with Morris.
So, he did. And not just for that inning, but on through the seventh until Morris' pitch count had reached 113.
It was, on more than one level, a glaring sign of the limitations placed on Russell by the continuing presence of Meek, who must be kept on the roster all season or offered back to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged as much.
"No question, on the heels of two extra-inning games and with a young player out in the pen trying to establish himself ... I hate to say it, but John's essentially managing with an 11-man pitching staff," Huntington said. "There's no question it's tough for a manager to bring in a young pitcher into that type of situation. So, absolutely, you leave Morris out there and hope he can get you through it."
Morris looked for most of the evening as if he could.
The Pirates had spotted him a 3-0 lead in the first inning, courtesy of three hits, two walks and sacrifice flies by Xavier Nady and Jose Bautista. And, although Morris had allowed at least one baserunner each of those first five innings, he limited Chicago to two runs.
"The game was right in front of me," Morris said. "But the sixth inning just changed everything."
Kosuke Fukudome led off with a full-count walk, and Morris fell behind Geovany Soto, 2-1, before Soto stroked an 87-mph fastball into the center-field landscaping to give Chicago its first lead.
Ryan Theriot bunted for a single, took second on another bunt and took third when, on a steal attempt, Bautista dropped Ronny Paulino's throw that arrived in plenty of time. Reed Johnson grounded right to shortstop Brian Bixler with the infield drawn in, but Bixler let it slip under his glove for what was ruled an RBI single.
From lousy luck to another long ball, with two outs, Mike Fontenot's two-run home run above the Clemente Wall off a 1-1 curve made it 7-3.
Russell and Morris each rejected the idea that Morris had tired, but ...
"He started leaving some balls out over the plate, and those two two-run home runs really broke his back" Russell said.
"I'll never admit to feeling tired, but my pitches might have flattened out," Morris said.
Before the game, Russell downplayed the pressure on Morris to get the Pirates innings, but Morris sounded plenty aware, anyway.
"I tried to avoid thinking about that all day, how I'd have to go eight or nine. When you start thinking like that, you're not going to get out of the first. But, yeah, I knew the situation our team was in."
Afterward, Russell expressed appreciation for the seven innings.
"Matt battled, and that's all we could ask with little to no bullpen tonight. He gave us seven innings."
Meek eventually entered the game, putting up zeroes in the eighth and ninth. He walked his first batter and hit another but, otherwise, had two strikeouts and achieved 97 mph on the one that fanned Derrek Lee.
That velocity was a first.
"He showed us a little more arm than we'd been seeing," Russell said.
At the same time ...
"There are times, like tonight, where having Meek is going to put us in tight situations, and he is going to have perform to stay here," Huntington said. "I thought this was a good step forward for him."
The Pirates were swept in the three-game set and fell to 3-6.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published April 11, 2008 4:00 AM