DENVER -- Game over?
A 16th consecutive losing season, one that would tie a professional sports record, is not yet in the books. But that might appear no more than a formality after the Pirates and Zach Duke were clobbered, 11-3, by the Colorado Rockies yesterday at Coors Field: They were swept in four games, extended their overall losing streak to five and dropped to 10 games under .500, at 44-54.
It is a nosedive remarkably reminiscent of the 0-7 emergence from the All-Star break last summer.
"It's last year all over again," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We're doing the same thing."
In more ways than one.
- Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP John Van Benschoten (1-2, 9.77) vs. RHP Runelvys Herndandez (0-3, 10.29).
- Key matchup: Each pitcher fighting for his life. The Pirates shelled Hernandez for 10 runs and 13 hits over four innings July 7 at PNC Park.
- Of note: Van Benschoten still is looking for his first victory as a starter since Sept. 10, 2004. If he achieves it tonight, the gap between victories of three years, 315 days would be the longest since Atlanta's Buddy Carlyle waited seven years, 269 days until winning again last year.
Be sure no one is talking about chasing the Chicago Cubs anymore. Or the wild card. Or anything related to the standings, actually. Not after being outscored, 28-9, in this series, one in which the miserable starting pitching finally was joined by a miserable offense.
Nor, however, is there talk of impending doom. There was no team meeting after this one and, by all accounts, none is needed. The players still feel they are competing. Just not getting results.
"We're not going to panic," manager John Russell said. "We'll come out of it."
"Look, we got our butts kicked," third baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "They pitched better, hit better and played better defense. It's how you respond to situations like this that test what you're made of. We've got to play better, period. You can make all the excuses you want, but the bottom line is we've all got to play better."
He shook his head.
"It's frustrating. You can't take steps backward when you're trying to gain respect. This was no fun, believe me."
Least of all for Duke.
He was charged with nine runs and 10 hits in five-plus innings, marking one of the worst outings of his career. And this despite a spectacular opening: He was perfect through 3 1/3, with three swinging strikeouts and a pitch count of 38.
"I brought the ball up, and you can't do that against hitters like that," Duke said.
Two of the Rockies' hits cleared the fences -- back-to-back home runs by Jeff Baker and Matt Holliday -- and five others that clanged off those fences for extra bases.
Russell and pitching coach Jeff Andrews rearranged the post-break rotation to give Duke nine days' rest. In that time, Andrews and Duke worked on a deliver adjustment to keep his upper body back and improve his arm angle.
Duke recalled executing it just fine ... for three innings.
"Then, it fell apart," he said. "But I know what the good feeling was early on, and I can take from that."
Duke has given up 20 runs in his past three starts, swelling his ERA to 4.92. He has not won on the road since May of last season, and he has not won anywhere since June 9.
The offense made a cameo reappearance in the first inning, swinging freely against All-Star Aaron Cook and scoring three times on as many hits, including RBIs for Nate McLouth and LaRoche and a double by Xavier Nady.
After that, though, the equipment staff could get a head start on packing the bats for Houston, as the Pirates, following a series-long trend of fades, mustered just two more hits. That left them with one run scored after the third inning for the entire series.
"I guess that's the one thing that makes this different from last year," LaRoche said. "We've been able to count on our offense all season, and now it's just gone. It's disappeared. We need to figure it out, and we need to do it real quick."
Still, the Pirates led, 3-0, until the fourth. With one out, Jeff Baker was the first to nick Duke with an infield single, a roller up the middle that shortstop Jack Wilson did not field cleanly. Matt Holliday doubled Baker home, and Chris Iannetti drove in Holliday to make it 3-2.
The Rockies kept launching in the next inning to burst ahead, 6-3: Clint Barmes tripled, Ian Stewart doubled and, one out later, Baker and Holliday went deep on consecutive pitches, the first an elevated fastball, the other a hanging curve.
Duke went back out for the sixth but failed to record an out. Two doubles and a single, and Russell removed him.
It was the first time the Pirates had been swept in four since Sept. 17-20, at San Diego.
To achieve .500 this year, they will need to go 38-26.
"We need to turn it around right now," Duke said. "We don't want to be in the same position we've been in the past couple years. We want to be a resilient team that bounces back, that never gives up. And we won't. There's a lot of baseball left to be played."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published July 21, 2008 4:00 AM