Another struggling starter blanks Pirates, 7-0

Weaver's four-hit shutout comes after going 0-6 with 10.97 ERA

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Ted S. Warren, Associated Press photos
The Mariners' Kenji Johjima slides safely into at home as catcher Ronny Paulino tries to catch a ball thrown by Jason Bay, who was charged with a throwing error on the play, in the second inning last night at Safeco Field in Seattle.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SEATTLE -- Stop right here if this sounds familiar ...

A pitcher struggles all season, faces the Pirates and, suddenly, stunningly, performs without a flaw.

Dominates, even.

Still want to go on?

Well, as the latest -- and perhaps greatest -- exhibit, there stood Jeff Weaver on the mound at the end of his Seattle Mariners' 7-0 rout last night, hearing the roar of the 23,553 at Safeco Field after a complete-game, four-hit, no-sweat shutout.

Yes, the same Jeff Weaver who was 0-6 with a 10.97 ERA and astounding .413 opponents' batting average just a few hours earlier.

Not even the many other pitchers the Pirates have encountered in similar circumstances could top that turnaround.

Not Randy Keisler, Kyle Davies, Kameron Loe, Kyle Lohse or Matt Chico.

Not even Kip Wells.

"Yeah, we've had a few guys with numbers like that," left fielder Jason Bay said.

In the same breath, though, he added, "But Weaver was good. Really good. Give him credit. I don't care what he did before tonight. He was good tonight."

"Nobody likes to be the team it happens to," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "But it doesn't matter what you do to that point when you perform like that. If you're a .100 hitter and you go 3 for 4, well, you were a .750 hitter that day. Weaver's ERA was 0.00 tonight, and that's what counts tonight."

There were other facets to the Pirates' loss, of course.

Paul Maholm was charged with six runs, four earned, over his seven innings, and he gave up Richie Sexson's second home run in as many nights. Dan Kolb, doing little out of the bullpen since his recent recall, gave up a Raul Ibanez solo shot in the eighth. And the defense committed two errors in the second that led to Seattle's first two runs.

Still ...

"When you do as little as we did offensively, you're not going to afford yourself much of a chance to win," manager Jim Tracy said.

Weaver gave up a Freddy Sanchez single in the first, a Bay walk in the second, and Wilson's leadoff single in the third. But he picked off Wilson, then retired the next 16 in a row until Ronny Paulino's double in the eighth.

To be sure, as the Pirates suggested, Weaver merits credit for that. He pounded the zone relentlessly, throwing 76 of 109 pitches for strikes. And he had the hitters guessing enough that an uncanny 26 of those were called strikes, including three of his five strikeout pitches.

"I've managed the guy, and I've seen him pitch like that," said Tracy, who had Weaver on his staff with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004-05. "Believe me, if he'd pitched like that all year, he wouldn't have come into this one with an 0-6 record and 10.97 ERA."

Weaver also kept opponents off balance by dropping down to a near-sidearm motion late in counts against right-handers.

Still ...

If the same thing keeps happening to the same team again and again, logic dictates that there must be a common thread. And there surely is.

Although the Pirates have fared better in winning five of eight, that has had mostly to do with pitching. Their .314 on-base percentage and total of 202 walks each ranks second-lowest in Major League Baseball.

And those numbers point -- sharply -- to a lack of commanding the strike zone, which is the key to putting pressure on a pitcher, which is the key to creating hitter's counts, which is the key to drawing pitches to drive with authority.

From the Seattle perspective, obviously, it all looked different.

For one, the Mariners had lost six in a row and were so down about losing to the Pirates Tuesday that manager Mike Hargrove declined to speak to the media, choosing instead to close his clubhouse and sternly address his players.

For another, Weaver, easily the bust of the year in the majors after signing a one-year, $8.3 million contract -- remember, the Pirates were one of his pursuers -- had a chance to breathe.

Weaver and Hargrove embraced on the mound, and Weaver said to Hargrove there, "Maybe we can get something going."

Weaver credited two decent starts -- four earned runs in 10 innings -- that led into this.

"It's nice to end the losing," he said. "But you don't change things overnight."

Seattle struck early, with some help.

With one out in the second, Kenji Johjima bounced to third baseman Jose Bautista, whose throw sailed high into the stands, allowing Johjima to take second. Adrian Beltre lined an RBI single to left, and Bay's throw home ricocheted off Johjima, allowing Beltre to take third. Sexson's infield single brought another.

Two barely struck balls, two errors charged, and a 2-0 Seattle lead.

Suzuki manufactured a third run in the third, beating out an infield single, stealing two bases and scoring on a groundout. Johjima added another with a two-out RBI double.

Sexson pulled his home run to left to open the fourth, and it was 5-0.

The Pirates still can take their first series against a winning team tonight in the finale. And it might help that they are facing a pitcher, Felix Hernandez, with rather nondescript numbers.


Mariners starter Jeff Weaver throws against the Pirates in the fourth inning last night.
Click photo for larger image.

TODAY:

Game:Pirates (RHP John Van Benschoten 0-1, 3.17) vs. Seattle Mariners (RHP Felix Hernandez 3-4, 4.58), 10:05 p.m., Safeco Field.

TV, radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).

Key matchup: Pirates vs. Hernandez, a former wunderkind and still only 21 years old. In his past four starts, he has allowed 18 runs and six home runs in 23 innings, nearly doubling his ERA.

Of note: These teams' hitters are among the least patient in the majors, each having played 20 games of drawing one or fewer walks from the opposing pitcher.


More Coverage:

Pirates Notebook: Wild relievers could take a walk

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

Gene Collier: Maybe each sport needs no-dope promise from players



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


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