For Pirates, Central issue is divisional record

Now 10-22 after clutch-less 3-1 loss to Cubs, Harden



Dissecting the Pirates' problems, top to bottom, inside and out, could make for a compelling master's thesis.

Or, one could condense it to the Cliff's Notes version: They cannot win within the Central Division.

The 3-1 loss to the fading, feuding Chicago Cubs last night at PNC Park, one that drew barely a blip of emotion from the local segment of the 15,400 on hand, left the Pirates 10-22 against their divisional opponents, 1-3 against the Cubs.

Against the West, the Pirates are a respectable 4-5.

Against the East, 13-7.

Even against the American League, which has tortured them for a decade, they went 8-7.

"It has to change, obviously," shortstop Jack Wilson said afterward. "It's so huge, what you do in your own division."

Nothing looms larger in the Pirates' losing ways these past two summers than how they have fared against the Cubs, who have won 19 of the past 24 meetings, and the Milwaukee Brewers, who have won 17 in a row.

"For some reason, those two teams really have our number," starter Zach Duke said. "It seems like there have been a lot of games were they pull it out in the ninth or 10th inning, other games where we just don't have a chance. We've got to figure out a way to get it done. They sure find a way to do it to us all the time."

Look at it another way: If the Pirates were merely .500 within the Central, their overall record would be 41-35 -- the reverse of what it actually is -- and they would be in first place, the buzz of Major League Baseball.

Unthinkable?

Maybe not, given the tightness of the division. Consider that the Brewers, currently in first, have precisely that 41-35 record, the strongest sign that there is no clear runaway candidate to this point.

"No, but I think it's a good division, very competitive," Wilson said. "Part of the reason everybody's records are so close is that we're all beating up on each other."

Well, the Pirates are not doing much of that beating up, of course.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: Ross Ohlendorf (6-6, 4.75) vs. LHP Ted Lilly (7-5, 3.41).

Key matchup: Adam LaRoche is 5 for 12 with a home run and three doubles off Lilly.

Of note: Today marks the centennial anniversary of the opening of Forbes Field, and these former players are expected to attend: Bill Mazeroski, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, Steve Blass, Hank Foiles, Bob Friend, Bobby Del Greco, Dave Giusti, Nellie King, Bob Robertson, Don Schwall, Chuck Tanner, Grant Jackson, Manny Sanguillen and Frank Thomas.


Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog.

"I think we've played these teams tough," Wilson continued. "How many games in the division have there been like this one?"

Eight of the 22 losses have come by two or fewer runs.

The intra-divisional failure was little different for the Pirates last year, John Russell's first as manager, when they went 32-49 within the Central, 4-14 against the Cubs.

"I think we're getting there, including against Chicago with how we've played them," Russell said. "But sure, these are teams we're going to have to learn how to beat."

The Cubs had been in disarray coming to Pittsburgh, 1-6 in the first seven games of their road trip, two below .500 overall, and distracted by all manner of off-field messiness, including manager Lou Piniella last week tossing outfielder Milton Bradley out of the stadium after a dugout-damaging tirade.

Made no difference.

Neither did another quality start from Duke, who, despite not having his sharpest sinker early, limited Chicago to three runs on seven hits over seven innings.

"Zach kept us in the game," Russell said. "He's been very consistent all year."

The Cubs scored on Andres Blanco's RBI single in the second, Ryan Theriot's solo home run in the third and Bradley's RBI double in the fourth. The latter was a laser to the fence in center, even though Bradley had to reach down for a finely located slider.

"I have no idea how he hit that ball," Duke said.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Rich Harden, owner of a 4.95 ERA and winless since May 12, performed as most starters with figures like that do against the Pirates: Mixing a crisp changeup and curve, he held them to one run and nine hits over seven innings while striking out nine.

"He had a really, really good changeup," Piniella said. "When he kept it down, it was unhittable."

The Pirates began to get to Harden late, with eight total hits in the fifth through seventh innings alone, but mustered only one run in that span. That came when Andy LaRoche led off the fifth with a double and eventually scored on Wilson's groundout.

Sanchez left bases loaded in that inning with a comebacker, and he quashed another rally in the seventh by bouncing in a 6-4-3 double play with two aboard.

Adam LaRoche, the cleanup man behind Sanchez, fared no better with three strikeouts and a groundout.

"We had the right guys at the plate," Russell said. "We just couldn't get it done."

Nyjer Morgan went 3 for 4, extending a .469 resurgence over his past eight games.

The only team in the majors with a worse intra-division record than the Pirates is near-tragic Washington: The Nationals are 6-28 against the East.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . First Published June 30, 2009 4:00 AM


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