How is all the Pirates' losing affecting rookies?

Karstens gives up two early home runs in team's fifth loss in row, 4-3



MILWAUKEE -- Another slow-stuff pitcher, Milwaukee's Dave Bush, put down the Pirates, 4-3, Saturday night at Miller Park.

Another two home runs were hit by the opponents.

Another two home runs of their own were solo shots.

Another road loss.

Another five-game losing streak.

And it is precisely the maddening sameness of it all, again and again, which probably should call attention to these numbers, as well: The Pirates now are 7-28 when Neil Walker starts, 7-21 when Jose Tabata starts, 7-15 when Pedro Alvarez starts, 2-4 when Brad Lincoln starts on the mound.

That is a lot of losing for any rookies, much less a full quartet arriving almost at once to join Andrew McCutchen as the foundation of the franchise's future.

It would be robustly unfair to fault any of the four newcomers, individually or collectively: Their careers are in their infancies, they have performed up to reasonable early expectations, and few could argue that any of them had not outgrown Class AAA Indianapolis.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 2:10 p.m., Miller Park.

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

Pitching: RHP Brad Lincoln (1-3, 5.25) vs. LHP Randy Wolf (6-8, 4.49).

Key matchup: Ronny Cedeno is 6 for 12 with two walks vs. Wolf, one of his best success rates against any pitcher.

Of note: Lincoln has given up five runs in four of his first six starts, in part because he is getting few swings and misses: He has only 14 strikeouts in 36 innings.

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Still, it might be worth asking: How does all this losing, something none of them experienced in the minors, feel?

"It's a tough stretch, and it's a real reality check for us," Walker said in another quiet clubhouse. "This is a tough enough game to begin with and, as hard as we're all working to improve -- the whole team -- that makes it a tougher pill to swallow on a nightly basis."

"It's not fun when you're not winning," Alvarez said at the next stall. "You've just got to keep battling and have faith that it will turn it around. It seems like we're one hit or one pitch away, and I think we're going to turn it around."

Tabata politely declined to comment on the subject because of his rookie status.

Do the youngsters feel the burden of turning it around?

"In the near future, that's tough to put on our shoulders," Walker continued. "Even next year, we won't have a full year under our belts. At the same time, it's going to have to be us. We're going to have to grow up quickly."

Alvarez focused more on the present.

"We're all in this together," he said. "Everyone's trying to do their job to turn this around right now."

Manager John Russell has had discussions with these players about "focusing on the opportunity at hand" and "getting ready each day to play nine innings," as Russell described his advice, and he applauded that aspect of their showing to date.

"They've responded pretty well," Russell said. "I keep saying this, but they really don't know how close they are to being able to turn that corner. Once they do, that belief is going to carry these guys a long way. In my opinion, it's going to accelerate how they do, more than most young players, because they're a group as opposed to one guy you might call up in a different setting."

Walker is batting .283, one of the Pirates' few consistent performers, and Alvarez and Tabata each went 2 for 4 in this game to raise their averages to .212 and .246, respectively. Lincoln, 1-3 with a 5.25 ERA, pitches today.

The latest loss mostly followed the script, except that Jeff Karstens was unusually erratic: He was charged with four runs over five innings, including back-to-back home runs by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the third, and alternated between looking sharp on five strikeouts and wild on the season-high six walks.

"He was out of sync a little," Russell said. "But he could have let it cave in on him, and he didn't."

Karstens was less kind in the evaluation.

"I was all over the place," he said.

Those home runs gave Milwaukee a 3-0 lead, Braun's coming on an 0-1 flat slider, Fielder's on a decent full-count fastball. Both were boomed well beyond the fences.

"I made a mistake to Braun, and I challenged Prince," Karstens said. "They got me."

That became 4-0 on Craig Counsell's sacrifice fly in the fifth.

The Pirates did rally, in another break from the script: Garrett Jones homered to open the sixth, his team-high 11th but first since June 13. Andrew McCutchen's sacrifice fly in the seventh closed the gap to two runs, and Ryan Doumit's home run to open the ninth made it 4-3.

Remarkably, of Doumit's eight home runs, three have come in the ninth inning at this stadium, all off Milwaukee closers. The first two were off Trevor Hoffman, this off young flamethrower John Axford.

Axford recovered to get swinging strikeouts of Ryan Church and Delwyn Young, wrapped around a groundout by Bobby Crosby.

The Pirates' streak of not hitting a home run with a man on base reached 30 games and 971 at-bats.

"Sure would be nice to get one of those," Jones said.

He thought back to the first inning, in particular, when Tabata and Walker had reached in front of him. He rolled out to first, followed by Alvarez striking out.

"We've gotten some hits, and I'm seeing signs of offense," Russell said. "It's just not good enough."

The All-Star break begins after the matinee today. The Pirates' current winning percentage on the 30-57 record is .345, the franchise's seventh-worst in the 72 years there has been a break. The most recent of the teams with worse records at the break was the 2006 edition, at 30-60.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog . First Published July 11, 2010 4:00 AM


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