A few hours before the Pirates took the field tonight at PNC Park, John Russell went over the two most important facets of facing St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols:
1. "Do what you can to keep guys off the bases in front of him."
2. "Don't let him beat you."
Well, after strikes one and two on those counts, strike three took the form of Pujols' three-run home run that carried the Cardinals to a 14-7 rout. And it resulted from an at-bat that surely had many in the crowd of 15,258 nervous well before the big man stepped into the box...
The Pirates had just stunningly scored six times off Cy Young Award candidate Adam Wainwright in the fifth for a 6-5 lead. But, in the St. Louis sixth, the Pirates' Kevin Hart, hit hard yet again, gave up a two-out walk to Skip Schumaker and a Colby Rasmus single.
Pujols was next, and Russell pulled Hart for Denny Bautista.
The entire bullpen was fresh, and a base was open, but this was the matchup he wanted: Bautista was the Pirates' best reliever the past two weeks, having retired 17 of 20 batters. Moreover, walking Pujols to load the bases would bring up Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick, each a slugger in his own right and each having homered in the third off Hart.
Bautista's first pitch was 93-mph heat, and Pujols fouled it back.
Next was a low-and-away curve that buckled Pujols and brought a check-swing, but only for a ball.
Then, Bautista went back to the well with the curve, and Pujols sent left fielder Lastings Milledge back to the wall with a rocket of a liner into the second row of bleachers, and St. Louis led, 8-6.
As if to reinforce the point that pitching around Pujols is not all that smart, Phil Dumatrait did that in the eighth. Holliday singled, and Ludwick stroked his second home run of the evening.
The Pirates matched a season high with their eighth consecutive loss -- two away from historic No. 82 that will break the professional sports record with a 17th losing season -- and Bautista likely will look like the goat after this one.
But it was another deflating start by Hart -- now 1-4 with a 6.35 ERA since being acquired by the Pirates in the John Grabow/Tom Gorzelanny trade -- that did the most damage: He was charged with seven runs, five earned, as well as nine hits and three walks over 5 2/3 innings.
And the one inning in which he pitched with the lead, he put men aboard for Pujols.
Maybe most alarming about Hart is that the hits he allows tend to be stung: Since joining the Pirates, opponents are batting .331, and 17 of his 47 hits have gone for extra bases.
For a fleeting moment, anyway, the Pirates had some fun, with that six-run sixth, highlighted by Brandon Moss' two-run triple that resulted in his scoring, as well, on an errant throw by Schumaker.
To put that outburst against Wainwright into perspective, consider that he entered 16-7 with a 2.47 ERA and ranks atop many lists of Cy Young Award candidates. Or that he gave up six total runs in July, then six total runs in August.