When does a baseball team give up a touchdown and credit its victory to the pitching?
Answer: When the bullpen is nearly perfect, as the Pirates' relievers were for 5 2/3 innings in dousing the Houston Astros, 10-7, last night at PNC Park.
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (3-7, 5.99) vs. RHP Brandon Backe (5-9, 5.22).
- Key matchup: Houston's Lance Berkman is having a triple-crown type of season, but he has batted .188 vs. Snell, 3 for 16 with three strikeouts.
- Of note: Bases loaded? No sweat for the Astros' pitchers. They have held opponents to a .209 average in such situations, and only Philadelphia (.150) and Cincinnati (.165) are better in Major League Baseball.
Denny Bautista, Tyler Yates and Damaso Marte combined to retire 17 of 18 batters, including seven by strikeout. Marte's ninth-inning, two-out walk to Mark Loretta was the lone blemish, but the performance as a whole still was plenty good enough to bail out Phil Dumatrait after a calamitous return from the disabled list.
"I heard this was a good bullpen when I got here," Bautista said of his June 25 arrival by trade from Detroit. "Now, I'm seeing it for myself. I'm so proud to be here and so happy. It's a special group."
Not much looked special about Bautista or any aspect of the bullpen in Milwaukee over the weekend, of course. Bautista was pounded for four runs in one agonizing inning Sunday by the Brewers, and the rest fared little better.
But this victory, one that broke the Pirates' three-game losing streak and avoided dropping to a season-low eight games under .500, began to take shape as soon as manager John Russell summoned Bautista to replace Dumatrait in the fourth inning. The score was 6-6, and there were two aboard with one out.
"It meant a lot to me," Bautista said. "They showed they believed in me."
Russell had little reason not to: Bautista had three scoreless appearances before the lousy Sunday. Still, he backed it up last night by retiring all eight batters he faced -- his first hit a sacrifice fly with the run charged to Dumatrait -- and striking out the side in the sixth.
Yates followed with one of his most sizzling displays in a Pittsburgh uniform, pitching perfect seventh and eighth innings with four swinging strikeouts stabbing the heart of Houston's order.
And Marte, the walk aside, picked up his second save, the first by anyone since closer Matt Capps went to the disabled list.
"Next time, no walk," Marte said.
"The bullpen saved us," Russell said. "That game looked like it could have gone on offensively for a long time."
No kidding. It was 10-7 through four innings, and that was how it finished.
Dumatrait, pitching for the first time since giving up seven runs June 19, matched that in his return from shoulder inflammation, and this in just 3 1/3 innings. He allowed nine hits, including Carlos Lee's two-run home run in the first and five hits in the fourth before exiting.
Most glaring, he threw only 38 of 72 pitches for strikes, largely because of an inability to command the breaking ball. The Astros sat on the fastball and teed off.
"Just rusty," Russell said. "He was trying to make things happen rather than just pitching."
"I elevated everything and got behind every guy, and you just can't do that," Dumatrait said. "You just can't do that."
Remarkably, Dumatrait's counterpart fared worse.
Runelvys Hernandez, who made a dubious cameo in the Pirates' system last summer, was clobbered for 10 runs on 13 hits the day after Houston's bullpen was devastated by a 17-inning affair Sunday that used up every reliever, some for as much as three innings.
Hernandez's line included Nate McLouth's 16th home run and Ryan Doumit's 11th, each comfortably clearing the Clemente Wall with McLouth's landing on the interior riverwalk in the second and Doumit's bringing the Pirates an 8-7 lead in the fourth.
That line also included the first career singles and RBIs by Dumatrait and Bautista, not exactly a resume builder for the pitcher on the other end.
"We'll take 'em," Russell said.
The one by Bautista might have symbolized the evening for Hernandez, who looked as if he might finally have an easy out with the former American League reliever stepping to the box. That was fortified when Bautista nearly fell forward with a terribly awkward swing and miss on the first pitch.
"Oh, you saw that, huh?" Bautista said.
Judging from the laughter from some in the crowd of 13,323, more than a few did.
Still, Bautista shook it off, took a slider from Hernandez for a ball, then correctly anticipated yet another and rolled it up the middle for an infield single that put the Pirates ahead, 9-7.
Jack Wilson's follow-up liner into center accounted for the final score and brought his team's seventh double-digit offensive output of the summer.
Other highlights: Jason Bay reached base all five times up, including an error. Adam LaRoche, his average up to .243 now that the second half is underway, reached all four times up, including his third triple in 12 games after having only two in his entire career previously. Doumit and Xavier Nady each had two RBIs, Nady's raising his total to 55.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 8, 2008 4:00 AM