It takes quite a bit to get Pittsburghers out to the ballpark on a Tuesday night when the Pirates are facing a last-place opponent, especially with no meaningful freebie or fireworks as a lure.
But there they were, 23,686 strong, including a day-of-game sale of 4,800 that might have been the best for a weeknight in years, all to see ... the local debut of Jeff Karstens?
- Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (7-7, 3.76) vs. RHP Josh Fogg (2-4, 7.98).
- Key matchup: Fogg has been abysmal against his former mates, with an 11.30 ERA in three starts, including 22 hits and six home runs in 14 1/3 innings.
- Of note: The Pirates are 19-15 in one-run games. They were 16-22 in that category last year, 24-31 two years ago.
That was the word from several PNC Park employees interacting with the customers, one of whom said beforehand, "They want to see the kid throw a perfect game."
That, of course, did not come to pass: Karstens did pitch seven innings, giving up four runs -- three earned -- in a 5-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He allowed seven hits, including decisive home runs by Brandon Phillips and Javier Valentin, struck out only two, walked two, and never rediscovered the rhythm of those 15 shutout innings against the first-place Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Never mind that perfection he approached in Phoenix.
"He was all right," Pirates manager John Russell said. "He got us deep into the game, but he wasn't as sharp as he'd been."
It was clear immediately that would be the case.
Karstens opened the game with a five-pitch walk to Chris Dickerson, then threw two balls to Jeff Keppinger to prompt one of those painfully familiar first-inning visits from pitching coach Jeff Andrews.
One could almost sense the sentiment from the crowd: Not him, too.
Karstens righted himself to fan Keppinger and coax a comebacker out of Jay Bruce, but his 1-1 fastball to Phillips drifted over the middle and was lasered into the left-field bleachers.
Imperfection No. 1.
"I didn't feel too comfortable right away," Karstens said. "I don't know why."
Did he have any sense of the local urgency to see him pitch on a live stage rather than as ESPN's top highlight?
"Honestly, I didn't think too much about that or look around or anything like that. I was just focused on pitching."
It is safe to say the opponent was just as focused on the ESPN highlight as the crowd.
"The guy's been really dealing, and we knew that," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "Our thought was that we needed to get to him early."
Valentin's solo shot came in the fourth, after Karstens had a 1-2 advantage and threw what he and others considered a decent curveball. But Valentin took an aggressive, low hack and lifted it into the seats beyond center.
Imperfection No. 2.
Was it a bad pitch?
"I didn't think so, and then I saw it on the video, and it looked like it was heading right down into the mitt," Karstens said, referring to catcher Ryan Doumit. "Sometimes, you've got to tip your cap."
Andy LaRoche's RBI double in the bottom half pulled the Pirates within 3-1, but his error in the sixth would set up the fourth run -- the unearned one -- that Karstens would allow: With one out, LaRoche failed to come up with a short hop off Phillips' bat. Karstens walked Valentin walked but, after another out, Karstens still was in a good place with .189-batting Corey Patterson in the box.
Single to right, and it was 4-1.
Imperfection No. 3.
The Pirates had a last gasp in the seventh, when bases were loaded with two outs for their hottest hitter, Doug Mientkiewicz. He bounced a ball up the first-base line that looked like it had a chance to tie the score, mostly because Valentin -- a catcher by trade -- stumbled with his first step. But Valentin dived, collected it and flipped to reliever Mike Lincoln in time.
"Could have been a different game right there," Russell said.
Someone asked Valentin ...
"Best play I've ever made? In the big leagues, yes," he said. "With the way we've been playing, I was not going to let that ball get past me."
The Reds had lost six in a row -- and 14 of 16 -- but they buried that streak by going ahead, 5-1, in the eighth on Patterson's RBI double off Tyler Yates.
Edinson Volquez, the visitors' outstanding rookie, improved to 14-5 by going 6 2/3 innings and limiting the Pirates to one run and five hits.
It was the PNC Park debut not only for Karstens but also LaRoche and left fielder Brandon Moss, both of whom spent much of the afternoon engaged in wide-eyed awe at the stadium and its surroundings. LaRoche went 1 for 4, Moss 0 for 4.
"It's going to take some time for all of our new guys to get comfortable," Russell said. "But I'm happy with what they've done so far, and I think the future's bright for all of them."
The average crowd on Tuesday nights through the first seven dates -- with the exception of the one against the New York Yankees -- was 13,641.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 13, 2008 4:00 AM