In what might or might not have been John Van Benschoten's last chance to crack the Pirates' rotation, he was optioned back to Class AAA Indianapolis immediately after giving up four runs in 42/3 innings of a 6-4 loss to the Houston Astros last night at PNC Park.
Goodbye for good?
Management is expected to promote a reliever as early as today -- Marino Salas is the best bet -- and buoy what manager John Russell called a "short-handed" bullpen. The Pirates already have enough starters to make it through the All-Star break, after which they can reset the rotation. If needed, Van Benschoten can be recalled within 10 days of his demotion and take his next turn.
Asked if Van Benschoten might get that turn, Russell replied, "We'll see. We'll talk about it. I would imagine he'll make his next start."
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. New York Yankees, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching:LHP Paul Maholm (5-5, 4.05) vs. RHP Mike Mussina (11-6, 3.64).
- Key matchup: Each pitcher will want to forget the two-plus innings of the rained-out affair June 26 that spawned this makeup: The Yankees were 5 for 13 off Maholm, all for extra bases. The Pirates were 3 for 8 with two walks off Mussina.
- Of note: This game will conclude the Pirates' interleague schedule for 2008. If they win, they will finish 6-9 and achieve their second-most wins since going 8-7 in 2001.
And what did he think of Van Benschoten's line, which included a four-run first inning, seven hits, six walks and six strikeouts?
"OK," Russell said. "Obviously, the first inning wasn't a good one. But he managed to put up some zeroes after that."
That surely was the isolated positive.
After two quick outs in the first, Van Benschoten hit Lance Berkman and walked Carlos Lee on four pitches. Geoff Blum clubbed the next pitch, a flat sinker that curled back across the plate, above the Clemente Wall for a 3-0 Houston lead.
"Worst sinker I threw all night," Van Benschoten said.
Three consecutive singles after that, and it was 4-0.
From there, Van Benschoten kept the Astros off the board, but even that came by stranding seven runners, two of those with Sean Burnett's help in the fifth. His pitch count when Russell came for him was 117 -- just 62 for strikes -- and the crowd of 13,884 booed as he walked off, illustrating that they were plenty aware of his 9.77 ERA.
"I'm obviously disappointed," Van Benschoten said. "The amount of walks was unacceptable. I was almost fortunate to get out of some of those jams. I've got to come with something better. The fastball command is priority No. 1. I've got to get back to the drawing board."
That has been spoken many times before, of course. Van Benschoten, the Pirates' first-round draft pick in 2001, has risen to the level of an elite pitcher, at times, in Class AAA, including most of this season. But he is 2-12 in his stints in Pittsburgh, with an 8.96 ERA that is highest in Major League Baseball history for any pitcher with as many as his 17 starts.
Did he feel pressured?
"Not really," he said. "You shouldn't go out there with pressure."
The Pirates are not exactly overflowing with options: Ty Taubenheim, who made a decent spot start late last month, is shelved with Indianapolis because of elbow trouble. Bryan Bullington was just removed from a full 40-man roster and would have to be added back, which is eminently unlikely. And there is little indication that management is impressed with Class AA starter Yoslan Herrera despite some encouraging recent work.
The Pirates' offense, as has become routine, battled back from that 4-0 deficit and tied.
Xavier Nady tripled in the second and scored on a groundout. Nate McLouth doubled in the next inning and scored on Ryan Doumit's two-out single. Doumit then sprinted all the way around on Jason Bay's double to pull within 4-3. In the fifth, McLouth's third double -- Nady had been the Pirates' most recent player with three, Aug. 4, 2006, in Chicago -- soon was followed by Freddy Sanchez's sacrifice fly.
But the Astros took the 6-4 lead in the seventh despite being held mostly to dribblers.
Michael Bourn led off with a bunt single off Sean Burnett, reaching by deftly sidestepping Adam LaRoche's tag, narrowly staying within the first base line with his left foot. Ausmus bunted him to second.
Tyler Yates replaced Burnett, and longtime Pirates nemesis Mark Loretta bounced right in front of home plate. Doumit made an ill-advised attempt to get the speedy Bourn at third base for the second out. It was late and low, bouncing away from Jose Bautista.
"I think, if Ryan had that one to do over, he'd have gone to first," Russell said.
Hunter Pence's soft groundout got Bourn home, and Kazuo Matsui's double -- only ball out of the infield to that point -- brought another.
That denied the Pirates what would have been their third sweep of the season. The most recent came May 6-8 against the San Francisco Giants.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com. First Published July 10, 2008 4:00 AM