Is it October yet?
The Pirates' 12-3 clobbering by the Chicago Cubs last night at PNC Park carried an unmistakable get-this-season-over-with feel, from the poor pitching to the lifeless at-bats to the visitors stealing bases at will to the wild pitch that conceded a run ... and even to the blah backdrop of a thin crowd of 14,454, save the vocal few clad in enemy blue.
In a larger scope, it was just as bad: It brought a fifth consecutive defeat, the third time in that span the opponent scored into double digits. And the 16th loss in 23 games since the Xavier Nady and Jason Bay trades. And a last-place tie with the Cincinnati Reds.
But what might be the most ominous figure of all is this: Thirty-one games remain.
Yes, that many.
"It's very important to turn this around," right fielder and clubhouse leader Jason Michaels said afterward. "There are going to be questions going into the offseason. Personally, for me, I'm going to go out there and play hard. Every day. As if we were in first place. It's important that the guys bear down and focus. If we don't win, we don't win. But we need to bear down."
He raised a finger, as if to clarify the point.
- Box score
- Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching:RHP Ian Snell (5-10, 5.60) vs. RHP Carlos Zambrano (13-5, 3.29).
- Key matchup: Pick your poison from Chicago's top regulars vs. Snell: Alfonso Soriano bats .467, Ryan Theriot .438, Mark DeRosa .500, Aramis Ramirez .320, Geovany Soto .750 and Derrek Lee .261.
- Of note: The Cubs' pitchers lead Major League Baseball in strikeouts with 1,018. They also led in the seven previous seasons, the longest such stretch since the Dodgers did it in 1957-63.
"I'm not saying we haven't done that. I just think we need to finish strong. We need to have a good taste going into next season."
Surely, no one left with a worse taste last night than two of the newcomers in those trades: Jeff Karstens was chased off the mound after three innings, and third baseman Andy LaRoche saw his hitless futility reached 23 at-bats.
Karstens was tagged for five runs, six hits and a walk before a 35-pitch third inning -- one that included Aramis Ramirez's three-run liner into the left-field bleachers -- prompted manager John Russell to pull him with a 5-0 deficit.
"He was already at 68 pitches. No sense sending him back out," Russell said. "He was missing his spots. Against a team like that, you can't do that."
Karstens had put up six zeroes against Chicago in his Pirates debut Aug. 1, a 3-0 victory at Wrigley Field, and a few of the Cubs said at the time that they felt they were at a disadvantage because they had little video to study of Karstens from his time in the New York Yankees' system.
That was no issue this time, evidently, as Karstens fell behind 13 of his 16 batters, and the Cubs waited for their pitches and teed off.
"I just tried to go out there and make my pitches, and I didn't do that tonight," Karstens said. "I didn't throw many strikes and, when I did, they hit them."
Jason Davis fared no better in relief, shelled for five more runs over the next two innings, as Chicago would wind up with 17 hits.
"We swung the bats tonight," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
LaRoche, meanwhile, went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, his average since joining the Pirates now down to a mind-numbing .129, just 8 for 62. Moreover, he looked to continue carrying that into the field with a rough first inning in which he failed to make one difficult play on his backhand, then bobbled to cost the team a 5-4-3 double play.
Pressing at all?
"Not really," he said, mustering a smile afterward. "I actually felt a lot better. I did some things I wanted to do at the plate, as far as mechanical things I worked on, and I just saw that on video. I think some things are starting to come together."
Not much came together offensively yet again for the Pirates: Brandon Moss and Adam LaRoche got all of it with two swings off Ted Lilly, Moss with a solo home run in the fourth and LaRoche with a two-run shot -- his 18th and sixth in the past 14 games -- in the sixth. But there would be eight hits in all, just one walk, and no significant threat.
It was the Pirates' third consecutive three-run output, the 15th of three or less in the 24 games since the Nady/Bay trades.
Eight more losses, and they will match the professional sports record with a 16th consecutive losing season.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 26, 2008 4:00 AM