This one hurt, and on several levels.
It hurt the Pirates to see Paul Maholm go pitch-for-pitch with San Diego ace Jake Peavy, each producing identically fine lines -- seven innings, one run, four hits -- only to lose, 3-1, yesterday before 21,721 at PNC Park.
It hurt to see John Grabow, just recovering from arm fatigue, give up late home runs to Scott Hairston and Josh Bard to break a 1-1 tie.
It hurt to see second baseman Freddy Sanchez and first baseman Adam LaRoche each make an early exit because of back spasms.
Above all, though, it hurt to see Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte traded to the New York Yankees early Saturday.
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. Colorado Rockies, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Ian Snell (3-8, 6.10) vs. RHP Jason Hirsh (season debut).
- Key matchup: Hirsh, expected to be promoted from Class AAA Colorado Springs, was 2-2 in nine starts there with a 5.07 ERA. He was shut down in spring training by a strained rotator cuff and has not pitched in the majors since Aug. 7, 2007.
- Of note: Beginning with a four-game sweep of the Pirates in Denver, the Rockies are 9-1 in their past 10 and have outscored opponents, 76-32. Jeff Baker has done the most damage, going 18 for 37 with three home runs during his nine-game hitting streak.
That last one might seem unrelated, but it probably is not.
Public reaction from the players has been mostly of the say-the-right-thing variety, but it probably is no coincidence that the Pirates lost three of four -- including the final three -- to a last-place team on the same weekend management acknowledged, through word and deed, that making the playoffs in 2008 is unrealistic. A previously lively clubhouse has gone mostly quiet and, in a palpable way, is not pleased with what happened.
"We have to move on. We do," LaRoche said. "And I think we will. It's a pretty good group in here."
Clearly anticipating this, general manager Neal Huntington met with some of the team's veterans Saturday to explain why the trade was made -- four prospects came in return -- and to give those players a chance to voice concerns. By all accounts, they did exactly that.
"It's a two-way street, and I wanted to hear what they had to say," Huntington said. "It's important to us that our players know we are all in this together, that all the moves we make are done with the aim of improving the team into championship-caliber."
The Pirates' stated primary motivation in making the Nady-Marte trade was to upgrade the pitching, and they surely will consider themselves fortunate if any of those three new pitchers can rival Maholm's current upswing at some point.
He was exceptional again in striking out nine -- Peavy had 10, the only real difference in the duel -- and keeping San Diego's hitters off balance, especially with a sharp slider and changeup. And that was no different than any of his 11 starts since May 31, in which he is 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA.
"Paul's been consistent, and that's the key," Pirates manager John Russell said. "His delivery is very sound, and he knows what he's doing."
"I do the exact same thing, from bullpens to workouts," Maholm said. "That gives me confidence, knowing I can use all four pitches, mix speeds, throw strikes. Hopefully, I can keep it going."
Pitching coach Jeff Andrews credited Maholm's work over the winter, when he shedded 15 pounds and reported to spring training sharp from the first toss.
"For Paul, it started in the offseason, where you'd like to see everybody start," Andrews said. "Coming off a year where he didn't perform as he should have and had some back trouble, I think he made a concerted effort to fix it. When you come into camp in shape and paying attention, you can work out the pitching bugs right there."
Each team squeezed out a run in the fourth, San Diego on Bard's slow RBI roller under shortstop Jack Wilson's glove, the Pirates on LaRoche's slow RBI roller up the middle. Few balls were struck with any authority, and it felt as if not much would change in the 1-1 tie until the starters were gone.
Those exits came in the eighth, with Maholm at 118 pitches and Peavy at 127, and the change came right away.
After one out, Grabow had a two-ball count on Hairston, and catcher Raul Chavez set up for a fastball on the outside corner. It drifted over the heart of the plate, though, and Hairston lined it into the left-field bleachers.
In the next inning, Bard launched a full-count fastball -- again drifting over the heart after Chavez had set up outside -- into the upper bullpen beyond center field, one of the longest hits at the ballpark all summer.
"If you leave 'em too much over the middle, that's what's going to happen," Grabow said. "They didn't miss 'em. This one's my fault."
Heath Bell and Trevor Hoffman each pitched a scoreless inning to put it away, Hoffman added No. 545 to his saves record.
Sanchez initially felt his back spasms during pregame running, and he said it was aggravated when he tried in vain to beat out a ground ball in the Pirates' first at-bat. He projected he could return tonight.
LaRoche felt a pull in the back right rib area after a swing while striking out in the sixth, and he was removed an inning later. His issue might take longer, as he was struggling to tie his shoes afterward.
The timing is lousy for both: Sanchez is batting .454 in his past eight games, LaRoche .389 for the month with six home runs.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com First Published July 28, 2008 4:00 AM