Pirates load bases for Pujols ... game over
St. Louis second baseman Skip Schumaker forces Andrew McCutchen out at second on a fielder's choice in the bottom of the sixth inning last night at PNC Park.
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Bases were loaded, and the game was on the line. And yet, this might well have been the least suspenseful at-bat in the history of PNC Park.
Chris Bootcheck had walked those bases loaded, then walked another to hand St. Louis a run.
Up came Albert Pujols.
Really now, what did anyone think was going to happen?
The game's dominant offensive force hooked a bases-clearing double, and the Cardinals went on to top the Pirates, 5-3, last night before a capacity crowd of 38,593 that spent much of the evening booing, the rest waiting for the postgame concert and fireworks.
The Pirates have lost seven in a row, their longest losing streak since the season-worst eight-gamer May 3-10.
"We did a little better," manager John Russell said. "Our guys battled, but that's a tough team to beat."
• Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (9-10, 3.45) vs. RHP Joel Pineiro (9-9, 3.18).
• Key matchup: St. Louis newcomer Matt Holliday is 5 for 11 off Duke, with a home run and double, and is a career .321 hitter at PNC Park.
• Of note: The Pirates' only starting pitcher in the National League's top 30 for ERA is Duke, at 16th.
Bootcheck, a 30-year-old journeyman newly recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis, had walked only seven batters in 40 appearances in the minors, but he walked three in that decisive sixth inning to turn a 1-0 St. Louis lead into 5-0.
After a quick out, a Yadier Molina single, a Julio Lugo walk and a sacrifice bunt, Bootcheck still was set to avoid the potent heart of the Cardinals' order. But he walked leadoff man Skip Schumaker to load the bases, then Colby Rasmus for a freebie RBI, missing with eight of the nine pitches to those two.
Russell speculated that Bootcheck, who had not pitched in the majors since 10 appearances with the Los Angeles Angels last summer, was "jittery," and Bootcheck backed that.
"That's not me," he said. "Maybe, in a way, it was good to get that first one out of the way."
When Bootcheck found trouble during a mostly effective spring training, he would lean on his slow stuff. But the curveball abandoned him last night, and he chose not to give in with the fastball, so he and catcher Ryan Doumit went all-sliders on Pujols.
As fate would have it, the best pitch of the at-bat, a crisp slider over the outer corner, was strong-armed by Pujols into the left-field corner for the backbreaking double.
"It wasn't a bad pitch," Bootcheck said. "He's a great hitter."
Especially with bases loaded: Pujols has five grand slams and is 8 for 10 with 27 RBIs this season.
"It's never a good sign when Albert's up in a situation like that," Russell said.
With that stroke, too, Pujols achieved 100 RBIs for each of the first nine seasons of his career, breaking a tie with Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams. The only player with a longer such streak was the Philadelphia Athletics' Al Simmons, who had 11 in 1924-34.
"It's very special," Pujols told reporters in the visiting clubhouse. "It's not easy to do it for one year. To do it for nine years in a row is special."
The Pirates' offense continued to look very un-Pujols-like: They had seven singles, a double and Ronny Cedeno's two-run home run in the ninth that pulled them within 5-3, but that tells only part of the story.
Consider that St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of his 24 batters through his 6 2/3 innings, a flashing neon sign that he would approach everyone aggressively. And yet, of those first-pitch strikes, the Pirates looked at 13.
"I thought we swung the bats a little better," Russell said of the offense. "Wainwright's tough."
Wainwright's counterpart, Charlie Morton, was charged with one run over five innings, but his line was deceiving, too: He allowed seven hits and two walks, tiptoed through trouble in four of those innings, fell behind 13 of 23 batters and, because of all that, ran up a pitch count of 93.
Morton has lasted longer than six innings in one of his first 11 starts with the Pirates.
What will it take for him to stick around longer?
"I guess I've got to get ahead, for one," Morton said. "And, once I'm ahead, put 'em away."
The Pirates are 45-65, a season-low 20 games under .500, and a 100-loss finish is growing increasingly realistic: In their final 52 games, they would have to go 18-34 to avoid it. It could help that 17 games come against other teams with similar records, including 13 against the Cincinnati Reds, four against the San Diego Padres.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who went 2 for 4 and has been the Pirates' only dependable player through this stretch, sounded an upbeat note.
"There are positive things we have to take from a game like this and from all these games," he said. "We didn't stop fighting. You look at how we pitched except for the one tough inning, some of the big hits we had, Ronny's home run, and we're right there. It's easy to fall into losing if you get down. We can't do that."
First Published August 9, 2009 12:00 am