LOS ANGELES - Remarkably, the Pirates were charged with only one error in the first inning of their 8-1 loss to Los Angeles last night at Dodger Stadium.
Do not be deceived.
They committed many more miscues than that, enough to remind one and all why, in the early going, they unmistakably are the worst defensive team in Major League Baseball.
"How many errors do we have now?" first baseman Adam LaRoche asked afterward.
Twenty-one, he was told, most in the majors. And this after ranking second in the National League in fielding percentage in 2007 only to the pennant-winning Colorado Rockies.
"Embarrassing," LaRoche said. "For this group, for how we played last year, that's just not right."
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 2:20 p.m., Wrigley Field, Chicago.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (2-0, 3.93) vs. LHP Rich Hill (0-0, 5.00).
Not much went right in this one from the outset ...
The first batter, Rafael Furcal, bounced to LaRoche, whose try at a glove-to-glove flip to pitcher Paul Maholm fell to the grass. It might have been a single, anyway, but the tone was set.
Next, Russell Martin grounded off Maholm's heel and into right field.
"Right off my cleat," Maholm said.
Matt Kemp lined an honest single into left for a 1-0 head start.
Jeff Kent then grounded into what might have been a 4-6-3 double play, except that Freddy Sanchez had broken to cover second to keep the runner there close. The ball rolled all the way into right field.
More on that play: Xavier Nady threw to shortstop Brian Bixler to hang up Kemp between second and third. Kemp gave himself up as the ball was tossed to Jose Bautista but, when Kemp deftly fell backward to avoid his glove, Bautista failed to tag him. Kemp quickly bounced to his feet and sneaked to third.
Everyone was safe, and error No. 21 was in the books.
"Sheer athleticism on his part," Bautista said of Kemp. "Unbelievable play."
As manager John Russell pointed out, that one could have been a double play, too, because Kent would have been hung up between first and second if Kemp had been tagged.
"It cost us," Russell said.
James Loney hit a sacrifice fly to left, one in which the runner might have been out at home if Jason Bay's throw were not just up the first-base line.
After a strikeout, Maholm's wild pitch off Ronny Paulino's mitt advanced runners to second and third. Juan Pierre bunted the next pitch to LaRoche, and Maholm was late covering the bag.
It was 4-0 Dodgers, and the cheers from the 53,629 on hand might as well have been drowned out by laughter at all the quirks and chaos.
"Weird inning," Russell said.
But hardly a fluke: The Pirates have committed at least one error in 14 consecutive games since the error-free opener, their longest such streak since 15 games June 2-16, 1946.
Russell and his staff have engaged the players in all sorts of extra defensive work, from the team-wide level to individuals working on one specific element. But none of it seems to be paying dividends to this point.
"You have to define fundamental errors and physical errors," Russell replied. "Fundamentally, we've been playing pretty well. Physical errors are going to happen. We've made some of those, and we've had some guys out of position. All in all, though, I think we've been playing OK."
How much better can the team be defensively?
"I hope a lot better," LaRoche said. "Every out for us is so important. We have to keep guys off the bases, whether that's walks or some of the little things that happened tonight. It seems like there's stuff you see only once a year, but we're seeing it every night. Even a double play where you only get one out but should get two. There's no error on that, but how many times have you seen it? Those things come back late in the game."
Furcal sent Maholm's first pitch of the second inning beyond the second deck in left field, and the rout was on.
Maholm would exit after five, down, 6-0, with a line of six runs - four earned - 11 hits, two walks, a wild pitch and a balk.
"The ball was up a little," he said. "I was throwing strikes, but they were thigh-high when they should have been knee-high."
Possibly too many fastballs, as well.
"Maybe I need to change my game plan and go a little softer earlier."
His counterpart, Brad Penny, pitched a far cleaner 52/3 innings with one run -- that on a LaRoche RBI single in the sixth -- and five hits.
The Pirates won the opener of this series in dramatic fashion on Nate McLouth's three-run home run in the ninth inning, but these last two losses were much more in line with their recent history at Dodger Stadium, where they are 5-16 in their past 21 games.
One bright spot: McLouth's sixth-inning single extended his hitting streak to 15, the Pirates' longest from the start of a season since Al Oliver's 18 in 1972.
One other: Sanchez, bucking the infield trend, turned two fine pivots on double plays.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published April 17, 2008 5:15 AM