Pirates' offense among franchise's worst
Manager John Russell, center, talks with catcher Jason Jaramillo and third baseman Pedro Alvarez after pulling reliever Brendan Donnelly in the eighth inning Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
Astros shortstop Angel Sanchez applies the tag to the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen on a steal in the eighth inning. McCutchen was safe.
Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf delivers a pitch in the first inning.
Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf follows through on a pitch in the first inning.
A fan is escorted from the ballpark after running onto the field in the eighth inning.
Share with others:
HOUSTON -- Strictly within the scope of the two-plus hours it took Houston's Roy Oswalt to one-hit the Pirates, there was not much to dissect: Oswalt pitched very well, the Pirates hit very poorly, and the Astros got two home runs from Lance Berkman to prevail, 2-0, on an immensely predictable Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
Manager John Russell summed it up succinctly: "Roy did everything he wanted to do."
And it was exactly what anyone should have expected from Houston's ace facing a lineup with two-thirds of its nine players batting below .240, one-third batting below .200.
Step back, though, and a far more striking image emerges of the Pirates' offense, which is solidifying its status as one of the worst in the franchise's 124 years:
• The .235 team batting average, lowest in Major League Baseball now that the Astros moved up in sweeping this three-game series, is the lowest for the franchise since finishing 1952 at .231. If .235 holds up, it would be the fourth-lowest in franchise history. The others that were lower came in 1892 and 1888.
Game: Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers, 8:10 p.m., Miller Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (5-7, 4.50) vs. LHP Doug Davis (1-4, 7.56).
Season series: Brewers, 4-2.
Key matchup: Pirates vs. demons? Yes, Milwaukee took the first four meetings by a historic 53-4 margin, but the Pirates took the last two of the April 26-28 series with dramatic late rallies.
Of note: What happened to that powerhouse, anyway? In losing the past five, to St. Louis and San Francisco, the Brewers were outscored, 43-8.
• The 53 home runs, second-fewest in the majors, project to a total of 100, fewest over a non-shortened season since 95 in 1989.
• The 627 strikeouts, eighth-most in the majors, project to 1,194, six shy of the record 1,200 in 2006.
• They have been shut out eight times, projecting to 15, most since ... well, 17 just last season.
Of late, of course, it has worsened:
• From June 7 onward, the Pirates have averaged 2.9 runs per game, held to three or fewer in 20 of those 29 games.
• The 8-5 victory Sunday against Philadelphia ended a streak of 46 games without scoring as many as seven runs, longest in the majors since 1985.
• There have been only 10 home runs since June 8, none with a man on base. The latter streak grew Thursday to 27 games and exactly 900 at-bats.
• And never mind multiple-run home runs. The Pirates have managed only seven multiple-run hits in that same span.
All of which raises the question: Is this offense under-performing or simply a match for the talent?
"There's a lot of talent in here," shortstop Bobby Crosby said in another virtually silent clubhouse. "We show spurts of it, and then we go cold. And it seems like when we go cold, we go cold as a team. We've just got to find a few to scratch a few runs across."
"I think the talent's here," first baseman Garrett Jones said. "I feel like we're a line-drive hitting team and not really a home-run team. Honestly, we're just not getting 'em to fall right now."
That can be stated with certainty of at least two of the three everyday rookies, as Neil Walker had the most consistently sound at-bats in the series, and Jose Tabata repeatedly is lining out with authority, as happened three more times Thursday.
"Unbelievable," Tabata said after this one.
That raises another issue pertinent to the above numbers: The Pirates of the past month have included Walker, Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, with Walker delivering steady production at .290 but Tabata at .226, Alvarez at .194.
Hitting coach Don Long forecast that "there are going to be times when they all struggle together," but he and Russell expressed optimism.
"You can see the pieces there now," Russell said. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."
Walker delivered the lone hit Thursday, perhaps unwittingly avoiding history with his looping single to right in the first inning.
Otherwise, Oswalt's only blemishes were two walks and a hit batsman. He had eight strikeouts, threw 79 of 117 pitches for strikes and barely broke a sweat.
"One of the best games I've ever seen him throw," Berkman called it.
"It was funny," Oswalt said. "The first three innings, I was missing spots and kind of getting nervous about not being able to throw where I want. It seemed like I was able to hit a few more spots later."
The Pirates seemed most flustered by Oswalt's fastball, which brought three caught-looking strikeouts.
"His fastball's sneaky," Jones said. "Just explodes on you."
The Astros hit eight home runs in the series after having only 50 beforehand, and Berkman was emblematic of that: He had eight before the series and added four.
"He killed us," Russell said.
Berkman's first home run Thursday came in the first inning off Ross Ohlendorf, another soft poke into the nearby Crawford Boxes in left. The next came in the fourth, also to those boxes but with more thump.
The scouting report on Berkman during what has been a deeply disappointing season, according to one National League evaluator Thursday, is that he had been having a hard time catching up with inside fastballs. And yet, the Pirates consistently pitched him outside, at least until Ohlendorf finally busted him inside with the third at-bat and drew a popup.
Ohlendorf blamed himself for the approach to Berkman, saying, "I should have gone inside, especially on the second home run."
Ohlendorf pitched plenty well enough to win, lasting through seven with no other damage, but he still fell to 1-7.
On that note, it bears repeating that pitching is a culprit, too -- though not on this day -- in the Pirates' 30-55 record that projects to 105 losses: The staff ERA of 5.10 is third-highest in the majors, highest for the franchise since 1952. And the starters deserve almost all of the blame, having only 16 victories -- in 85 games -- as compared to the relievers' 14 victories.
"That's unacceptable at the major-league level," pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said.
Milwaukee is next.