Brewers' ace shows Pirates his best hand

Sheets goes distance in 4-1 victory, as Snell seeks answers

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Now, that is how an ace performs.

Milwaukee's Ben Sheets went the distance in putting down the Pirates, 4-1, last night at PNC Park, this despite 11 hits, despite having several other balls stung, despite his lower back tightening in the fifth inning, despite a pitch count of 123.

No sweat.

Just pitch.

"When we had men on base, he really elevated his game," Pirates manager John Russell said. "He'd get a little extra on the fastball or a little more bite to his breaking ball. And he kept coming. That's the sign of a good pitcher."

The kind of pitcher that Russell and everyone in management surely hope Ian Snell or Tom Gorzelanny can become someday.

  • Box score
  • Statistics
  • Standings
  • Today
    • Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
    • TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
    • Pitching: LHP Tom Gorzelanny (3-4, 6.64) vs. RHP Dave Bush (1-4, 6.05).
    • Key matchup: The top five hitters in Milwaukee's lineup -- Rickie Weeks, Mike Cameron, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart -- are a combined 9 for 47 vs. Gorzelanny, a 191 average.
    • Of note: Bush was born in Pittsburgh, but he left the region in early childhood and grew up near Philadelphia. The Brewers' have another local connection: Reliever Zach Jackson was born in Latrobe, raised in Cranberry.

Snell, the Pirates' man on this night, had another lackluster line with four runs -- two unearned -- on nine hits and two walks over six innings. There were encouraging signs, not the least of which was some revitalized zip to his fastball that contributed to six strikeouts, but the overall result looked unfortunately familiar: He fell to 2-3 and has not won in seven starts since April 12.

"It's frustrating, mostly because the team is losing now," Snell said, referring to the Pirates' third consecutive defeat. "But I was throwing all of my pitches better, and that part of it felt good."

He credited that to pitching coach Jeff Andrews ordering him not to use the sinker for the first time this season. The idea: Keep a universal arm slot for the regular, or four-seam, fastball.

"Anytime I'd throw that sinker, my arm would kind of drag down," Snell said. "This way, everything was sharper with the four-seam. The slider and curve, too."

The Pirates' rotation, as a whole, has a 5.51 ERA that is highest in Major League Baseball, and that is due in no small part to Snell being at 4.84 and Gorzelanny, the starter tonight in the series finale, at 6.64.

Those two carried the staff in 2007 and, by Andrews' assessment, they can do so again simply by not overthinking things.

"When you're talking about the way the pitchers are throwing, out of all our starters, you're only talking about Snell and Gorzelanny," Andrews said. "I'm very happy with the way the other guys are throwing, even if they need more strikes. But those two ... they just need to find themselves."

Where did they get lost?

"I don't know what took them off that line. But I know they need to become themselves again. Get rid of the pink elephants. Take it pitch to pitch. Enjoy the game. It's the same thing we were saying about Zach Duke in January. Enjoy it. They're not doing that now. They're going out all tense and worried about results, about what's going to get written in the paper or whatever. Just have fun."

Which would mean, in theory, setting aside all talk of so-and-so being a staff ace.

After a recent game in Washington, Snell bristled at the notion of being called an ace, as many, including the Pirates' new brass, were calling him even before that 10-strikeout gem April 6 in Miami. But he did acknowledge last night, through his view of Sheets, that he would welcome earning such a designation.

"I have a lot of respect for Ben Sheets," Snell said. "He challenges everybody. He throws hard. We're almost alike, except he's a little bigger, and he's got a little dirtier curveball."

He paused.

"I want to be that guy. I do. I'm trying my hardest. I went out and pitched with my back hurting in St. Louis."

That was not previously revealed. Snell lasted only four innings in giving up 11 hits to the Cardinals last week.

"Regardless what anybody says about me ... they can say I stink, whatever, I don't care. I'm determined to win. And yeah, I want to be that guy."

Sheets, always a boon for the Brewers in those rare sustained periods when he has remained healthy, improved to 5-1 with his 15th career complete game, second of the season.

Xavier Nady led off the fourth inning with his sixth home run, but the Pirates achieved nothing with their other 10 hits. A good example of why: Nate McLouth doubled with one out in the third, and Sheets responded by getting swinging strikeouts from Jason Bay on 94 mph heat, Adam LaRoche on 95 mph heat.

"I felt great with my pitches all night, and that's fun," Sheets said. "It's always a good feeling to go all the way."

Snell had some lousy luck in the Brewers' two-run fifth that gave them a 3-1 lead, each run unearned.

Rickie Weeks opened with a grounder to first that LaRoche thought he had in his glove as he went to the bag but actually had left behind in the dirt.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, Adam makes that play," Russell said.

Later that inning, Ryan Braun's triple and Corey Hart's two-out single, each for RBIs, came when they reached out and poked quality pitches.

"That's a good hitting team over there," Snell said.

The pitch Snell wanted back came in the sixth, with two outs and two strikes to Weeks, a fifth consecutive slider that was left hanging and sent to the left-field bleachers to make it 4-1.

The paid attendance of 8,805 was the sixth-smallest in PNC Park's eight-year history.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at First Published May 22, 2008 4:00 AM


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