CHICAGO -- It surely is not easy to find comfort in any defeat as crushing as the Pirates' 8-5 balloon-bursting by the Chicago Cubs yesterday at Wrigley Field.
Just ask Pirates manager John Russell.
"It stinks," he said with an atypical bite.
"It's really tough," reliever Sean Burnett said after giving up eighth-inning home runs to Reed Johnson and Alfonso Soriano just after his teammates had mounted a three-run rally to tie the score.
And yet, defining these rest-of-2008 Pirates is going to require a little more depth than the lousy result or the long faces in the dugout.
To that end, then, what might have made this afternoon most important to the franchise was the performance of the three newest members, all culled from the Jason Bay trade last week.
Brandon Moss had a two-strike count in the second inning against Chicago ace Carlos Zambrano and surely should have been intending to lay off the next pitch. But, maintaining the solid approach that has impressed the coaching staff in the early going, Moss saw one he liked and dug in anyway, launching a 420-foot shot high above the ivy in center field.
- Game: Pirates vs. Arizona Diamondbacks, 9:40 p.m., Chase Field.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: RHP Yoslan Herrera (1-1, 9.00) vs. RHP Dan Haren (11-5, 2.62).
- Key matchup: How dependable is Haren? He has pitched seven innings or more in 10 of his past 11 starts and has not allowed more than three runs in any of those games. He held the Pirates to three over seven innings in a 5-3 Arizona victory June 7 at PNC Park.
- Of note: As if Carlos Zambrano were not enough, the three pitchers the Pirates will face in Phoenix -- Haren, Brandon Webb and Randy Johnson -- are a combined 35-16.
This off a changeup.
"Looked like a pitch I could hit," Moss said.
The Pirates were ahead, 2-0.
Ian Snell, disrupted by a stiff lower back, was forced out after four innings -- seven hits, three walks -- and Chicago expanded its lead to 5-2 in the fifth with Aramis Ramirez's home run off T.J. Beam.
Meanwhile, the offense produced one measly single from the third through seventh innings, and the mere thought of a comeback, the kind seen so often when Bay and Xavier Nady were in the lineup, seemed distant.
But Doug Mientkiewicz, still setting the tone in the aftermath of those seismic trades, doubled off Neal Cotts with one out in the eighth. After another out, Ryan Doumit singled him home to make it 5-3.
Andy LaRoche was next, and it must have felt like a rookie hazing.
"I'd heard about all these comebacks this team has had. What, 25 times?" LaRoche asked. He was told it was 26. "That's amazing. Yeah, I'd love to be part of something like that."
So, he was.
LaRoche, praised by general manager Neal Huntington for having "impeccable command of the strike zone," showed a bit of that: He fell behind fresh reliever Chad Gaudin, 1-2, but took two close pitches to run the count full. The next pitch was a splitter, a sign that Gaudin was not giving in, but it stayed up, and LaRoche boomed it -- with a thick sound -- into the left-field bleachers.
One swing, 5-5, and welcome to the club.
"Nice to see those kids contribute like that," Russell said. "We knew they had some power, and they showed some of that out there. It's fun to watch."
By the time LaRoche returned to the dugout, he was a bit taken aback, he said, by the calm.
"I guess those guys are kind of used to these rallies," he said. "We didn't do that much in Los Angeles."
The next newcomer in the mix was reliever Craig Hansen, making his Pittsburgh debut when summoned for the seventh. That went scoreless, and he got two quick outs in the eighth before walking Geovany Soto.
Chicago manager Lou Piniella sent out left-handed Daryle Ward, and Russell countered with Burnett. So, Piniella sat Ward and sent out the right-handed Johnson.
Russell had no concerns, as Burnett was coming off three consecutive hitless outings, and his pitches were equally effective against batters from either side.
"He'd been throwing very well," Russell said.
That includes the fastball, which Burnett used effectively in drawing a critical groundout in the series-opening victory Friday and which, he decided, he would lean on again.
First one was fouled off.
Second was a swing and a miss.
Next one was going to be wasted, down and in, except that it stayed up and over and way beyond left-center for Johnson's sixth home run of the season, one that so engaged the crowd that it received a curtain call.
"Belt-high," Burnett said. "That was just going to set up a slider for the next pitch."
Four pitches later, Soriano took him deep, too.
Because of the walk, Hansen was charged with a tough loss, but it remained a modestly encouraging weekend for the newcomers: Moss went 2 for 8 with the home run, four walks and two fine plays in the outfield. LaRoche went 2 for 11 with the home run, a walk and sound work at third base.
Nothing spectacular, to be sure, but possibly a start.
"All we want to do is go out there and do our best to help the team," Moss said. "I know it's going to take us some time, and we're not like those guys that left here in the trades, but we're going to try."
Snell's back trouble began in the second inning, but neither he nor Russell predicted it would cause him to miss a start.
"It kind of kept me out of whack here, had my fastball command all over the place," Snell said. "But it's not serious."
First-place Chicago took two of three.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 4, 2008 4:00 AM