Pirates, Duke find dumps again right away, 9-3

Starter pulled early, future here in doubt, as Braves avoid sweep


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With these 2010 Pirates, upon the slightest sign of something positive, there inevitably follows the crash and burn.

When Pedro Alvarez hit that 10th-inning home run in early August, maybe the most uplifting moment in PNC Park's hollow history, they lost 12 of the next 13.

When management signed three elite amateur pitchers two weeks later to a franchise-record investment, the front office spent the next few days reacting to a national leak of ownership's profit margins.

And now, when the team might have put together its most thorough back-to-back victories all summer, with a chance to sweep a contending nemesis ... ka-boom!

Atlanta 9, Pirates 3.

Zach Duke lasted just an inning-plus Wednesday night, allowing eight of 11 batters to reach and giving up four runs. So much for the fine starts by Brian Burres and James McDonald in taking the first two from the Braves.


Tomorrow

Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park.

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

Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (7-14, 5.43) vs. RHP Homer Bailey (3-3, 5.00).

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The defense reverted to standard form, including a key throwing error, and heard boos from the 13,113 on hand. So much for those sharp fundamentals.

The offense ... well, one gets the idea.

"It's kind of frustrating," shortstop Ronny Cedeno said. "I would have loved a sweep. It's still good to have two or three, but this one was tough."

Duke, now 7-13 with a 5.47 ERA, is beginning to make a case that he is the worst regular-turn starting pitcher in Major League Baseball: His losses are tied for fifth most among all pitchers with 120 or more innings, his ERA is the second highest, and his .320 opponents' batting average is the highest.

All of which might be pointing to Duke's offseason exit after five-plus years in the rotation.

Duke will be eligible for salary arbitration a third and final time this winter, and indications are powerful that management will not tender such an offer, thus casting him into free agency. He currently is making $4.3 million and, because arbitration awards raises based largely on innings, he surely would make more through that process. Another possibility: Management could approach Duke about staying at a lower guaranteed figure.

This start certainly did not help him.

Atlanta started out dinking, but those soon turned to line drives, including Brian McCann's RBI single and Alex Gonzalez's two-run double in the first.

The second inning was worse, Duke giving up a cannon-shot double by mound opponent Derek Lowe, then a single and walk.

That was when manager John Russell, in one of his hastiest hooks, took the ball. The two did not exchange a word with the exchange of the ball, and neither looked terribly pleased.

Neither sounded pleased afterward, either.

"He didn't have much," Russell said. "Not much else you can say."

Anything at all to pinpoint?

"Nope. Just struggled."

Duke was asked about the hook, as well as his visible reaction.

"I don't know. Obviously, I wasn't doing much good while I was out there," he said. "Can't fault the manager. I was more frustrated with myself at that point."

Was it the stuff? Command? Both?

"Just command. I kept falling behind on everybody, and it's tough to pitch with a 2-0 count."

How tough was this one?

"The toughest part for me is that I left eight innings for the bullpen to cover. I owe those guys. I just have to put this one out of my memory and prepare for the next start."

In general, the Pirates' starters now have lasted three or fewer innings an incredible 12 times this season.

Daniel McCutchen relieved and fared no better, charged with four runs in 11/3 innings. One of those was unearned, but that was his fault, too: Lowe tried to put down a bunt, and McCutchen went for the lead runner at third but flung the ball into left field. A run scored, and it was 5-0.

Russell used eight pitchers, matching the Pirates' record for a nine-inning game. Just in case anyone was wondering why management promoted enough September call-ups for an 18-man staff.

"We played two great games, and you see what starting pitching can do for you," Russell said. "We didn't do that tonight, but I was really happy with the way these guys took two out of three from Atlanta. They played really well."

The Pirates have not won three in a row since June 30-July 2, and they have not swept Atlanta in a three-game series since 1994.

One of the few bucking the crash-and-burn trend: Neil Walker's hitting streak was extended to 15 by a first-inning single up the middle. It is the longest by a Pittsburgh rookie since Rennie Stennett's 18 in 1971. Walker is 25 for 66 during the streak, with five home runs and 16 RBIs.

Only other highlights came for newcomers in the ninth: Pedro Ciriaco's RBI double was his first major league at-bat, and it followed a double by Alvarez, who was 3 for 4. Later, Alex Presley sprinted out an infield single for his first major league hit.

"Those two kids will never forget that," Russell said.

The franchise's worst season in a half-century saw the record fall to 47-92, eight losses shy of 100.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog . First Published September 9, 2010 4:15 AM


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