Pirates reach break with battered staff

Snell, Osoria latest to get shelled by St. Louis, 11-6

It is as if the Pirates, with that 11-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday at PNC Park, were eager to script a tidy summary to their first half.

  • Game: Pirates vs. Colorado Rockies, 9:05 p.m., Coors Field.
  • TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-5, 3.93) vs. RHP Kip Wells (1-1, 2.29).

The four-step formula probably looks familiar by now:

1. Awful pitching.

2. Awesome comeback.

3. More awful pitching.

4. Aw, forget it.

Ian Snell gave up four runs in five innings, the offense battled back, the bullpen gave up more, the offense battled back, and Franquelis Osoria ultimately gave up so many that the hitters -- perhaps exhausted from needing 12 runs to win the previous night -- finally ran out of fuel.

"Bottom line: We need to pitch better," manager John Russell said. "The offense has been there all year, but we haven't pitched."

It takes little acumen to see this bottom line, just as it is easy to see why so many associated with the Pirates are exasperated that the record they carry into this All-Star break is 44-50, three games ahead of the same point last summer.

The offense has produced 460 runs, good for seventh in all of Major League Baseball, and the .262 average and 98 home runs also rank in the top dozen.

The pitching staff, in violent contrast, has the highest ERA at 5.24, highest opponents' batting average at .290, third-most home runs at 112, second-most walks at 388, fourth-fewest strikeouts at 548 and ... well, one gets the idea.

Russell, asked to define the Pirates' first half, pointed initially to intangibles.

"We've talked a lot about this, and what we're most proud of to this point is in the way our players go about it, the way they prepare, the way they talk, the way they police themselves," Russell said. "You see from Neal Huntington and our staff the accountability. Nothing is given anymore. You have to produce. You will be given ample opportunity, but the accountability has been instilled. We're proud of that."

He cited no names, but he surely was referring to the demotions of fixtures Tom Gorzelanny and Ronny Paulino, as well as key players being benched, as struggling Freddy Sanchez was yesterday for the fifth time in 11 games.

"We're very proud of the offense, too. Especially the outfielders," Russell continued. "They've done a phenomenal job, and I think Donnie's done a great job, too."

That would be hitting coach Don Long.

"You look at our approach ... all I heard from last year was how these guys were free swingers, quick outs, never worked the count, and I don't see that."

About that pitching, though ...

"That's why this is frustrating, in a sense," Russell said. "We don't like our record. We really believe we're a better team than this. I don't think it's any secret that we felt we'd pitch better, and it's something we'll continue to work on."

That burden of instruction, of course, will fall on pitching coach Jeff Andrews, who has yet to make his mark on the roster as Long has.

Huntington reiterated yesterday that his priority as general manager remains building organizational depth, even if that means trading productive major league talent.

"We're not content," Huntington said. "We need depth to add to this group. How do we get that? As we've said from day one, there are going to be times when we make unpopular decisions, but those decisions might be necessary to take next step."

And what of the first half and all that offense and those 23 comeback victories that suggest a superlative camaraderie?

"It's been a fun first half. This team has played hard from the first pitch to the last. But the reality is that this team is a number of games under .500. Nobody wants to win 81 games. We want to play meaningful games in September and October and, to do that, we need a number of quality pieces."

Snell's start, his second off the disabled list, saw him continue to show better stuff than before his elbow pain -- six strikeouts, 11 batters retired in a row, fastballs up to 95 mph -- but that was undone by St. Louis' four-run fourth.

All of the damage came after two outs, on back-to-back doubles, a walk and Aaron Miles' three-run home run. It was only second home run for Miles and, surprisingly given his 5-foot-8 stature, it came on a high-and-tight fastball.

"The pitch was higher than him," Snell said with a laugh. "I didn't realize he had that much power."

"Ian did OK," Russell said. "His command was a little better, and I liked how he attacked . I think he's definitely on the right track."

"I felt really good out there," Snell said, "especially the fastball and curve."

Bottom line: Snell has won one game since mid-April, has pitched as many as seven full innings once in 18 starts and has a 5.92 ERA.

That big inning gave St. Louis a 4-1 lead, but the Pirates tied in the fifth on Ryan Doumit's two-out RBI double and Jason Bay's two-run single.

The Cardinals went back ahead, 5-4, in the sixth on an unearned run off Sean Burnett: Second baseman Chris Gomez allowed a double-play ball to get under his glove and, ultimately, the lead runner scored on a groundout.

Bottom line: Burnett has been better of late but has yet to pitch a 1-2-3 inning in 25 appearances since his arrival. This time, a leadoff single started the trouble.

The Pirates answered once again in the bottom half, as Gomez atoned for his error with a two-run double, and the lead was theirs again, 6-5.

But Osoria took the ball in the seventh and, with his sinker again failing to fool anybody, failed to retire his first four batters: Ryan Ludwick singled, Albert Pujols was hit by a pitch, Troy Glaus doubled in a run, and Chris Duncan singled in another. After one out, Miles' triple brought his fourth and fifth RBIs.

St. Louis was up, 9-6, and Osoria was booed off the field by the crowd of 21,052 after recording one out.

"I felt good before the inning," he said. "But there were too many runs, too many hits. I don't know what to say."

Bottom line: Osoria has been scored upon in 11 of his past 14 appearances and has a 6.58 ERA. He has been, unquestionably, the Pirates' worst reliever.

T.J. Beam and Tyler Yates each gave up solo home runs from there, and all that remained was to add up St. Louis' eyepopping totals in taking two of three in this series: The Cardinals scored 28 runs, had 50 hits, homered six times and were set down in order in just two of 28 innings.

No one contributed more than Glaus, who yesterday went 3 for 4 with a home run to finish the series 10 for 13 with three walks.

"That's called hot," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said of Glaus.

To be fair, other circumstances have contributed to the Pirates' pitching woes of late: Phil Dumatrait is on the disabled list again, minor league help is being shuttled almost daily, and John Grabow and Romulo Sanchez were unavailable all weekend because of arm issues.

"We've been limping for about 10 days now," Russell said. "The bullpen guys are giving what they have, but they don't have a lot left in the tank."

Bottom line: The pitching, including the meager depth when others go down, is almost entirely responsible for the Pirates remaining on a path toward a 16th consecutive losing season.

Paul Maholm, the rotation's lone bright spot, will pitch when play resumes Thursday in Denver.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published July 14, 2008 4:00 AM


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