Pirates punched out 14 times in 7-3 loss

Milwaukee's Vargas fans three after bases loaded in fourth

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MILWAUKEE - Get a whiff of this ...

Jason Bay homered, tripled, doubled and walked -- a poor man's cycle, some might call it -- but touched home plate only once.

How does that happen?

Well, it becomes academic when everyone else in the lineup is swinging and missing.

Yes, everyone else.

The punchless Pirates struck out 14 times in their 7-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers last night at Miller Park, and all eight players in the starting lineup except Bay had at least one K affixed to his line.

Wait. It gets worse.

Eleven of those strikeouts were credited to Milwaukee's Claudio Vargas, a career .500 pitcher with four employers in the past half-decade, and this over just six innings. He never had more than nine in any previous game.

Six strikeouts, three each, came from Xavier Nady and Ronny Paulino, the men in the order right behind Bay.

Six strikeouts came while going 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position to extend a season-long trend that did not fade even with that sweep in St. Louis.

And, undoubtedly most painful, half of those came with one stunning swoop in the fourth inning ...

The Pirates were down, 3-1, when Freddy Sanchez led off with a single. Adam LaRoche walked, and Bay did likewise.

Bases loaded, nobody out.

Then, despite the wildness that preceded him, Nady swung at Vargas' first two offerings for an 0-2 hole and wound up swinging through a Vargas fastball.

Paulino, too, swung through a Vargas fastball.

As did Bautista.

It took Vargas 14 pitches, not one of them topping 92 mph on the gun, but he raised his fist in triumph as the crowd of 22,331 leaped and roared.

"That's the big key right there," manager Jim Tracy said. "You've got to come away with something there. You can't just strike out."

Especially not when facing a defensively dubious opponent such as Milwaukee. Put the ball in play against the Brewers, and the chance is better than average that something will go awry.

But swing and miss ...

"What good teams do is put the game away right there," Bay said. "And we didn't do it."

Not even against Vargas, the distant fifth starter in Milwaukee's rotation.

Some of the Pirates' players credited Vargas for "rearing back and letting it go," as Bay put it, but Tracy made clear his view that more could have been achieved in the box.

"We swung through some hittable pitches," Tracy said.

The Pirates would strike out three more times against the relievers, rendering pretty much everything else irrelevant.

It did not matter that Bay hit his third home run, the 100th of his career, off Vargas in the second inning and showed another sign that his bat is coming alive by reaching base all four times up.

It did not matter that starter Paul Maholm was sandwiched for three runs in his first inning - including Bill Hall's two-run home run - and two more in his sixth and final inning. He settled in the interim, but his 10 hits allowed raised his season total to an eyebrow-raising 23 through three starts and it was clear he would need offensive support.

And it definitely did not matter that the Pirates scratched out two other runs in less-than-intimidating fashion, Chris Duffy turning a fifth-inning single into a run thanks to a comedic sequence of three errors by the Brewers, and Bautista scoring from second in the seventh when the next two batters recorded outs.

What did and does matter, without question, is that the offense remains a non-factor 13 games into the season. The team is averaging 3.5 runs per game, is batting .233, and has had one victory out of six where it did not need the closer to get a save.

Oh, and that average with runners in scoring position? It is now .178, worst in Major League Baseball.

"You might put a little more pressure on yourself in those situations," Nady said. "It could be timing. It could be mental. It could be anything. ... I don't know. It's a long year."

Eventually, the players were insisting afterward, those hits will come.

"Yes, they will," Paulino said. "I think we're getting better approaches, doing some better things. It will happen."

"It will be in bunches, too, which is how it's worked all the years I've been around baseball," Duffy said. "I just hope it's soon."

The two-game series concludes this afternoon.

Morry Gash, Associated Press
Claudio Vargas puts the exclamation point on one of his 11 strikeouts.
Click photo for larger image.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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