It was difficult to discern what was more jarring from the Pirates' 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday at PNC Park ...
Was it Xavier Nady, Major League Baseball's leader in outfield assists, making an errant throw that led to the winning runs?
Was it Tyler Yates, scored upon once all of June, getting charged with those runs?
- Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:05 p.m., Great American Ball Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (5-5, 4.41) vs. RHP Aaron Harang (3-10, 4.51).
- Key matchup: The Pirates know enough to ignore Harang's record, even after scoring six runs in four innings off him May 29 in Cincinnati. He has 94 strikeouts in 112 innings and is three starts removed from holding the Boston Red Sox to one run over seven innings.
- Of note: Jay Bruce has cooled somewhat since that phenomenal debut against the Pirates in late May, his average at .286 with four home runs and 14 RBIs. The important number the next two nights, with Maholm and Zach Duke on the mound, is that he is batting .237 off left-handers.
Or was it, in the larger sense, that the Pirates failed to put away a close one?
"When we get late into the game and it's tight, we expect to win," Yates said. "You have to believe that, and we did."
Not without cause: When tied after seven innings, the Pirates had been 7-4. After eight, it was 6-2. In extra innings, it was 8-3, best in the majors. And, in one-run games of any kind, they were 15-11, including 10-3 at home.
So, it probably looked plenty encouraging to the 15,828 on hand when Yates took the mound for the eighth inning -- his second -- to protect a 2-2 tie. But that changed quickly.
It opened with Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena and Willy Aybar each bouncing a ball through the right side. On the latter, Pena went full tilt to try to reach third base. Nady scooped the ball cleanly and, without hesitation, came up throwing and succeeded in getting full gusto behind it.
One problem ...
"I threw a two-seamer," Nady said. "Just sailed on me."
Third baseman Jose Bautista recognized that immediately and left his position to try to catch it, but it went too far up the left-field line and off the rolled-up tarp, allowing Pena to score. Aybar took third when Bautista threw home in another vain attempt at Pena.
One batter later, Shawn Riggans' splintered-bat single into center made it 4-2.
"Pena's hit was off the label, just the right spot. Aybar rolled over his. And I got Riggans right on the hands," Yates said. "It's frustrating. I felt I pitched really well. But that's baseball."
Might Nady's throw have gotten Pena if it were on line?
"Hard to say," Bautista said. "I had to abandon the bag too soon."
Pirates manager John Russell, asked essentially the same question, pointed to the nine previous occasions Nady has retired baserunners.
"It's hard to fault the guy leading the league in assists," Russell said. "He's been very good. The throw got away from him at an inopportune time, but I don't want our guys to not be aggressive out there."
Russell also could have pointed to this: The Pirates have made only four outfield errors -- two by Nady, one each by Jason Bay and Jason Michaels -- all season. Only the Los Angeles Angels (one) and Baltimore Orioles (three) have fewer.
Or, he could have reminded that the Rays' aggressiveness on the basepaths has been a dominant trait in their sudden, stunning rise.
"Not everyone on this team would have tried that," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said of Pena's run. "That, to me, was a big play because, of course, it got the bad throw."
The Pirates pulled within one in the bottom of the eighth, attempting to tie for the third time on the afternoon: Jack Wilson, capping a day of terrific baserunning, had a one-out bunt single, took second on a wild pitch and eventually came home on pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit's liner into center.
But Tampa Bay's Troy Percival pitched a scoreless ninth for his 19th save, shrugging off Nady's leadoff walk with three quick outs.
The Rays took two of three on the weekend, leaving the Pirates 4-4 on a homestand that included the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.
"Obviously, we would have liked to have done better," Russell said. "But we faced some of the better teams in the American League and, really, some of the better pitching. A couple breaks, and it would have been a nice homestand."
Some of that "better pitching" included Tampa Bay's Andy Sonnanstine, who improved to 9-3 with seven quiet innings of two runs and five hits.
The Pirates' Tom Gorzelanny was nearly a match, striking out a season-high eight and walking a season-low two in six solid innings: He allowed two runs -- solo home runs by Riggans and Aybar -- and eight hits, exiting with the score 2-2.
Better efficiency would have been welcome -- the pitch count was 111 -- but there was no mistaking the lower trajectory of his pitches and the superior stuff, best evident in his confident, aggressive approach to right-handed batters.
"He pitched," Russell said. "That's what he's capable of doing. He can pitch."
The strikeout total was one shy of a career high, set last August in Phoenix.
"It doesn't matter how many I struck out," Gorzelanny said. "My job is just getting outs, keeping the ball on the ground. The strikeouts are just a bonus."
One possible explanation for the stuff: Gorzelanny's delivery was tightened by pitching coach Jeff Andrews between starts.
Outfielder Nate McLouth exited after the sixth inning because of a sore knee, the result of fouling two pitches off it Saturday night. He is not expected to miss any time.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published June 30, 2008 4:00 AM