Duke's solid start undone by Pirates' many follies

Infield shifts, errors, baserunning blunder bring ugly 4-3 loss to St. Louis


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This time, it was the Pirates letting down Zach Duke, not the other way around.

Big-time.

Duke pitched plenty well enough -- 6 1/3 innings, three runs, zero earned -- but some backfiring defensive shifts, two infield errors, a monumental baserunning lapse by Andy LaRoche, another defensive gaffe by Aki Iwamura and other fundamental follies led to a red-faced 4-3 loss to St. Louis Friday night before 16,473 at PNC Park.

"We made too many mistakes, obviously," manager John Russell said. "You can't do that against any team, especially a team like the Cardinals."

How many mistakes?


Today

Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

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

Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (0-1, 6.17) vs. LHP Jaime Garcia (3-1, 1.13).

Key matchup: Garcia, a 23-year-old rookie, has been exceptional in holding opponents to a .176 batting average and striking out 23 in 32 innings.

Of note: The Pirates had not committed an error in 48 innings before Ronny Cedeno's muff in the first Friday night.

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Consider that, all told, the Pirates essentially handed the Cardinals all four of their runs while stripping away at least two of their own.

Start with the finish ...

With the score 3-3 in the ninth, one out and Evan Meek on the mound, St. Louis pinch-runner Joe Mather tried to steal second. Catcher Ryan Doumit's throw had him by a full stride, except that Iwamura went to tag Mather's outstretched left hand -- only to see Mather pull it back and touch the bag with his right.

It was an alert call by second-base umpire Gary Cederstrom but the latest in a string of defensive lapses by Iwamura.

"He missed the tag pretty badly," Russell said.

"I thought I made the tag, but I missed him," Iwamura said. "That's my fault. I need to work on that."

Yadier Molina followed with an RBI double to right, and the Cardinals had the 4-3 lead.

There, too, was a subplot: It was Molina's fourth hit of the game, his third to the right side. Despite Molina's broader history of hitting to all fields, the Pirates repeatedly played Molina with a shift of Iwamura toward second base, this even after the first two that went that direction.

Now, rewind to the first ...

After the first out, the Pirates put on a violent infield shift for Ryan Ludwick, with Iwamura close to the shortstop side of second. Ludwick simply rolled a ball through the gaping hole for a single.

Duke battled through a 12-pitch at-bat to retire Albert Pujols, but shortstop Ronny Cedeno's error on a bouncer and a walk loaded the bases for Molina.

That brought a shift for Molina, too, Iwamura moving close to second.

And it brought another single in the same direction, this one putting the Cardinals ahead, 2-0.

St. Louis observers could not recall any opponent using such a shift against Ludwick, and the only such shifts against Molina had come in double-play situations. There were two outs this time.

The Pirates decide on such alignments at the level of the coaching staff and above, including general manager Neal Huntington's scouts and statistical analysts, and the team's stance is that it bases these defenses -- including some conspicuous outfield shifts this year -- on sound information.

At the same time, a good major-league hitter -- Ludwick and Molina certainly qualify -- has the ability to roll a ball into a large infield gap no matter his charted tendencies.

Russell was asked if these shifts hurt the Pirates.

"No," he replied. "You know, Molina, he hits the hole. We moved Aki over as much as we could, and that's just ... we didn't make good pitches.

He cited Duke's 0-2 slider to Molina.

"We were supposed to bounce a breaking ball and left it up. He shot it through the right side for two RBIs. We left some balls up that Molina could get to the gap. So, I guess we'd have to play right in the hole. We made some adjustments as the game went along. I thought we were in the right spots. You can't defend everything."

Russell was asked if it was more about the pitching, as the Pirates instruct pitchers to pitch to certain spots based on the alignment.

"We can't defend bad pitches," Russell replied to that one. "Or pitches that aren't where they're supposed to be. The pitch Molina hit was off the plate. You try to do the best you can to get guys in the right spot, where history has shown they hit the ball of Zach. It didn't work out."

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, asked about the Pirates' shifts, said, "They played toward the middle for some reason. Let's see where they play tomorrow."

LaRoche's throwing error in the sixth led to another St. Louis run and a 3-1 lead, and the Pirates nearly gave another away when Molina singled through that familiar hole for what would have been an RBI had right fielder Ryan Church not thrown out Matt Holliday at the plate.

LaRoche would make a far bigger mistake later when the Pirates looked set to rally in the eighth, down by 3-2: He and Andrew McCutchen opened with singles, LaRoche taking third. Runners at the corners for the heart of the order, nobody out.

But Garrett Jones hit a comebacker, LaRoche was hung up between third and home, and the catcher Molina chased him back to third.

While this went on, McCutchen had come all the way around from first and stepped on third just before LaRoche arrived, too. As per Rule 7.03 (a) in Major League Baseball's book, the lead runner is entitled to the base unless the following runner is forced. Thus, when Molina tagged McCutchen, he was out.

That was expected.

This was not: LaRoche, clearly thinking he was the one called out, walked off the base, and Molina tagged him, too, for the most unconventional 1-5-2 double play.

"Never been part of a play like that in my life," LaRoche said.

He was asked if anyone -- third base coach Tony Beasley and McCutchen were within earshot -- said anything to him.

"No, nobody said anything."

Russell, asked who was to blame, answered: "It was a messed-up play."

Molina offered empathy for LaRoche.

"He looked like he didn't know the rule," Molina said. "Two years ago, I didn't know it, either, and it happened to me."

Beasley could not immediately be reached for comment.

Somehow, the Pirates stayed in it, thanks to two hit batsmen and a bases-loaded wild pitch that same inning that brought the 3-3 tie.

In Duke's previous start in Los Angeles, he failed to retaliate when the Dodgers' Ramon Ortiz twice threw at McCutchen's head, infuriating the Pirates and visibly disturbing Duke, who said that night, "I dropped the ball."

Not this time: He outlasted that 32-pitch first inning that hardly was his fault, went into the seventh despite a pitch count of 104, held Pujols hitless in four at-bats, scattered nine hits and, in general, looked much more like the Duke that opened the season.

"The fastball command was really good," Duke said. "I kept the big guys from doing damage, and that made the difference."

Actually, the broader difference in this one happened everywhere but the mound.

"Weird game," Jones said, after he, too, erred in the field by failing to notice a runner taking second after he cut off an outfield throw. "One you'd like to forget right away."

The Pirates' three-game winning streak, one in which they played sound baseball throughout, ended with a thud.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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