All Zach Duke and the rest of the Pirates could do was laugh.
One of those unhealthy, uneasy laughs.
"How about that?" first baseman Adam LaRoche said after the 2-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs, yesterday afternoon before 15,260 at PNC Park. "They have two balls go a total of 50 feet, they get a run out of each one, and they win the game."
Simple as that.
Duke was outstanding in limiting Chicago's high-powered offense to two runs and seven hits over eight innings, but he still lost his eighth consecutive decision and the team lost its season-high seventh in a row almost entirely because of a maddening seventh inning...
Reed Johnson opened with a bunt single, in a clear attempt to get something going after the Cubs had just five hits to that point. Mark DeRosa hooked a ball into the left-field corner for a double that moved Johnson to third.
"He wasn't moving," Johnson said of third baseman Andy LaRoche, well back on the play.
Ronny Cedeno's rolling groundout to third brought one run, and Henry Blanco's suicide squeeze bunt -- one that popped into the air, found a patch of grass just inside the first-base line and never budged -- brought the other.
"Seemed like the perfect situation," Blanco said.
Duke mustered one of those laughs when asked about it.
"You just tip your cap to them for being able to go out and manufacture stuff like that," he said. "One ball left the infield, and they got two runs, so ... what can you do? I'll tell you, I feel like I did pretty well today, especially against that offense."
Duke had pitched OK through four August starts, but this one was at another level: He struck out six, walked two and threw 76 of 117 pitches for strikes. The key, catcher Raul Chavez said, was a crisp curveball that kept Chicago's hitters off balance.
"The fastball was good, too," Chavez said. "He put it right where he wanted."
"Zach threw the ball well, changed speeds, worked down, gave us eight solid innings," manager John Russell said. "It's just unfortunate that we didn't score."
Still, Duke's record fell to 4-13, and his most recent victory came June 9.
"Honestly, I'm just going to keep building on the work that I've been doing," he said. "I'm headed in the right direction."
The Pirates' offense, as was clear again, is heading in some other direction in squeezing out just five hits and a walk.
Chicago's Jason Marquis, owner of a 4.76 ERA, looked smooth in putting up seven zeroes, striking out three and walking none. He attacked both sides of the plate, particularly the outside corner against left-handed batters.
"Best I've seen him in a while," LaRoche said. "Even when he got behind, he found a way to make his pitch."
Still, the same has been true of most pitchers since the Pirates traded Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. This marked the 16th time in this 7-18 August that they failed to top three runs, as well as the second shutout.
Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood finished off the Cubs' three-game sweep, one that left them with a 14-4 record against the team at the opposite end of the Central Division standings.
Someone asked Russell if he was glad to have Chicago off the docket.
"Yeah," he replied flatly.
Six more losses, and the Pirates will clinch a 16th consecutive losing season to match the professional sports record.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com.