The four-point formula is becoming painfully familiar ...
1. The Pirates' starters dig a deep hole.
2. The offense rallies.
3. The relievers hold serve.
4. Not enough.
It played out again last night before 23,930 at PNC Park in the form of a 6-5 loss to Philadelphia, this after Zach Duke spotted the Phillies six runs, the offense clawed back for five and the bullpen was bullish as usual.
"They're showing lots of character," manager John Russell said. "They fight, they do what they can, the bullpen keeps it close ... we're right there, but we just can't get over the hump."
That, without a doubt, can be heaped on the starters, who are a combined 4-11 with a 6.13 ERA, each mark the worst in Major League Baseball, and have allowed the other team to take the lead two-thirds of the time.
- Game: Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Matt Morris (0-3, 9.15) vs. RHP Kyle Kendrick (1-2, 5.59).
- Key matchup: Morris vs. everybody. He has given up 35 hits, including five home runs, in 20 innings, so every pitch, every batter will be critical.
- Of note: The Phillies have seven come-from-behind victories, tied for most in the National League. Last year, they led the league with 48.
One can only imagine, if the starters had been merely ordinary to this point, how much better the Pirates' record might be than its current 9-14.
"Oh, absolutely," Duke said. "And, as starters, we know it's up to us. We know we have the team here that can score runs, that can make big plays, because we're seeing it night after night. But it's up to us to make that count."
After an encouraging spring and a somewhat effective opening to the season, Duke is beginning to look little different than the Duke 2.0 version of the past two years -- Duke 1.0, of course, was the brilliant rookie of 2005 -- with an 0-2 record, 5.34 ERA and .318 opponents' batting average. The Phillies' nine hits in Duke's six innings last night mean he has given up eight or more in his first five starts.
He had appeared sharper in his first two starts, keeping batters off balance and occasionally striking out some. But he ran up pitch counts of 116 in each of those and has yet to have that effect since. His fastball, averaging 90-92 mph back then, sat at 89 mph last night.
Still, all concerned are adamant that neither fatigue nor quality of stuff is an issue.
"I don't think Zach threw as bad as the scoreboard indicates," Russell said. "He had a couple of walks that hurt him but, all in all, I thought he threw OK."
"Zach's never been a stuff guy," pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. "For him, it's really more about the command. It's the walks that hurt him here."
Duke, who had not walked more than two in any game, did so in the first inning, setting the table for Chris Coste's two-run double.
"I shot myself right out of the gate," Duke said. "The fastball command just wasn't there, but I recovered it later in the game."
Not by the third inning: Jayson Werth clubbed a 3-1 fastball into the center-field seats and, later that inning, another two-out RBI by Coste put Philadelphia ahead, 4-0.
In the fourth, Brad Harman, freshly recalled from Class AA Reading, lashed an RBI double for his first major-league hit. Werth's two-out single made it 6-0.
Still, the Pirates rallied.
They halved Philadelphia's lead in the bottom of the fourth: Jason Bay's fifth home run -- a high shot to center off Adam Eaton's first-pitch heat -- was followed by back-to-back doubles from Ryan Doumit and Xavier Nady, the latter extending Nady's hitting streak to 13. Doug Mientkiewicz's two-out double brought him home.
They pulled within one in the next inning, those runs coming on Nady's two-out, two-run single.
Nady's average is up to .344, and his three RBIs raised his total to 23, most by any Pirates player in the opening month since Jeff King had that many in 1996. Willie Stargell had 27 in 1971.
"I'm feeling great up there," Nady said.
Tyler Yates, Damaso Marte, John Grabow and Matt Capps kept it right there, but that would be it for the offense against a Philadelphia bullpen with a 2.60 ERA that is lowest in the National League. Pinch-hitter Ronny Paulino had two aboard with two out in the eighth, but J.C. Romero got him to ground out.
Although Bay, Doumit and Nady made for a formidable heart of the order -- five hits, four for extra bases, and four RBIs -- not all is well with the offense ...
Leadoff man Nate McLouth's 0-for-4 extended his slump to 14 hitless at-bats since that 19-game hitting streak ended. Look for Nyjer Morgan to get a rare start tonight.
No. 2 man Freddy Sanchez's 0-for-5 extended his slump to 10 at-bats, and the former batting champion is down to .212.
"Those guys might be pressing," Russell said. "But they'll come out of it. They know how to hit. They've done it before."
So has Adam LaRoche, but seldom in April: His 0-for-4 has his average down to .141. A year ago, he finished April at .184.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published April 26, 2008 4:00 AM