Kiss it goodbye? Pirates fall to worst start since 1957
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HOUSTON -- One pitch, goodbye to the game.
One month, goodbye to the season?
This is what it has come to for these Pirates, who gave up a Craig Biggio home run on Paul Maholm's first offering and three more runs in the first inning on the way to a 7-2 humbling by the Houston Astros yesterday at Minute Maid Park.
"You've got to keep playing, you know?" shortstop Jack Wilson said in an otherwise silent clubhouse afterward. "You can't look at your record right now because it's only going to put you in a bad mood. It's just a matter of going back out there every day and, slowly, you get back to where you need to be."
The latest measures of this miserable start:
The Pirates, swept in a three-game series by Houston, have lost four games in a row and six of their past seven.
The record fell to 5-15, worst in the National League. Were it not for the marginally greater ineptitude of the 4-13 Kansas City Royals, it would be the worst in Major League Baseball.
The start is the franchise's worst in the first 20 games since the 1957 edition also opened 5-15. That group went on to finish 62-92.
Manager Jim Tracy, maintaining the same face, the same tone through it all, said of that ignominious slice of history: "It's not how you start. It's how you finish. I don't put a lot of stock in that stuff. There's a great understanding here of what we need to do. We need better starting pitching, and we need a lot better hitting in key situations."
The Pirates undoubtedly will need to undertake that soon.
Consider that they would need to go 77-65 the rest of the season to clinch their first winning year since 1992. Or 85-57 to reach 90 wins, the general bar for a contender.
Entering the season, management did not establish either as a goal, saying simply that it sought improvement. But that vague, modest aim appears only slightly less ambitious after this start: To top the 67-95 mark of last season, the Pirates will need to go 63-79 the rest of the way, a .443 pace that is miles above the current .250.Pat Sullivan, Associated Press
Pirates starter pitcher Paul Maholm reacts to giving up a single to Astros' Adam Everett to start the bottom of the second inning.
Click photo for larger image.
Provided by Forecaster
Opponent: St. Louis Cardinals (11-7).
Site: Busch Stadium, St. Louis.
Times: 8:10 p.m. today and tomorrow, 1:10 p.m. Wednesday.
TV, radio: Today and tomorrow on FSN Pittsburgh, Wednesday on ESPN. All games on KDKA-AM (1020) and Pirates Radio Network.
Starting matchups: LHP Oliver Perez (1-2, 6.75) vs. RHP Chris Carpenter (2-1, 1.67), RHP Victor Santos (1-3, 5.85) vs. RHP Jeff Suppan (0-2, 9.00), LHP Zach Duke (1-2, 4.50) vs. LHP Mark Mulder (2-0, 3.86).
Season series: St. Louis, 2-1.
Three things to know about the Cardinals: 1. Think they looked poised to take a step backward this year? Maybe not. They have won six of their past eight, including two of three from the Pirates last week at PNC Park. 2. The Pirates will face two pitchers from that series: Suppan will be trying to shrug off a disastrous outing in which he allowed eight runs in two-plus innings. Carpenter, the Cy Young winner, has allowed one run in his past three starts, none in eight innings to the Pirates. 3. This just in: 1B Albert Pujols is good. In his past eight games, he is 11 for 27 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs.
The Pirates' key to success: Keep the top of St. Louis' order -- SS David Eckstein and RF So Taguchi -- off the basepaths when Pujols and 3B Scott Rolen get to the plate. In 27 plate appearances last week against the Pirates, the top two in the order reached base 11 times.
The intangible: The Pirates will get their first glimpse of the new Busch Stadium and must learn quickly its various nuances. Fortunately for them, the quirks are few. The outfield fence is 9 feet all the way across and has a symmetry similar to Three Rivers Stadium.
On deck: A three-game weekend set with the Phillies at PNC Park.
To say this one started poorly would qualify as massive understatement, even by the standard of a team that has allowed the opponent to score in the first inning 12 of 20 times.
Moments after his initial warmup, Maholm elevated an 89-mph fastball over the heart of the plate, usually a mistake to a dead-pull hitter such as Biggio. It zipped into the left-field seats for his 46th leadoff home run. Only Rickey Henderson, with 81, had more.
"I wanted it off the plate, and it went right down the middle," Maholm said. "Right then, I knew the ball wasn't going to go where I wanted."
He was right.
After an out, Lance Berkman singled, and Morgan Ensberg crushed a 1-0 pitch, a 90-mph fastball, high into the center-field arches for a 3-0 lead. That, too, was up and over the middle.
Jason Lane then singled and came around to score on Chris Burke's double, but only because left fielder Jason Bay badly overshot his cutoff man.
Maholm, in remaining winless at 0-3, lasted only three innings and was charged with five runs and seven hits and, most alarming, four walks that included one to Adam Everett with the bases loaded in the third to make the score 5-0. He struck out none.
For the season, Maholm has 13 walks to nine strikeouts.
"He never got into any kind of groove," Tracy said.
In dramatic contrast, Houston ace Roy Oswalt clicked from the outset and gave up a run and six hits in his seven innings to go 4-0. Typically in command, he fanned seven and walked none.
"Roy comes out, throws strikes, works at a fast pace," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "That sets the tempo."
The Pirates have scored four runs in the past four games, but Maholm and the offense were not all that hurt them. There were fundamental gaffes, too.
In addition to Bay missing his cutoff, Freddy Sanchez ran through third base coach Jeff Cox's stop sign in trying to score from second on Wilson's two-out single in the fifth inning. The Pirates were down five, and Bay was on deck. Sanchez was thrown out by 15 feet.
"We had a couple of situations where we didn't execute the way I like to see us execute," Tracy said.
The Pirates will need to find peak form in a hurry if they are to challenge Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter tonight in St. Louis.
Or sustain any semblance of relevance for their 2006 season.
First Published April 24, 2006 12:00 am