The Pittsburgh Pirates began the 2012 season looking like the worst offensive team in baseball. After a surprising power surge in the middle of the summer, they are doing their best to revert back to their impotent start.
Reds righthander Homer Bailey kept the Bucs under control Wednesday night, helping Cincinnati complete a three-game sweep at Great American Ball Park and send the Pirates to a 2-1 loss, their sixth in a row.
Pittsburgh is now 5-16 since its dramatic 19-inning win Aug. 18 in St. Louis. Incredibly, the Pirates remain only 2.5 games behind the Cardinals for the NL’s second wild-card spot after the Padres swept St. Louis this week. Unfortunately, the Brewers and Phillies have now joined the chase, each just three games behind the final playoff position.
But the Pirates (72-70) have larger worries than the teams around them in the postseason hunt. No. 1 is the offense, which produced only one extra-base hit Wednesday in the hitter’s haven of Cincinnati. Pittsburgh has scored only 14 runs in its last six games.
That continued lack of punch made a loser of starter A.J. Burnett, who did a nice job keeping a powerful Reds lineup off balance with a mix of firm fastballs and well-placed curves. The veteran righty went six innings and struck out eight against five hits and two walks.
A questionable wild pitch got away from catcher Rod Barajas in the third, setting up Wilson Valdez’ RBI groundout that put the Reds on top early. Ryan Hanigan had led off with a single and was pushed to second on Brandon Phillips’ hit.
The Pirates’ lineup was weakened Wednesday night by Neil Walker’s continued absence due to lower-back tightness and the surprise shelving of slugger Pedro Alvarez, who was inactive due to sudden pain in his right wrist. Andrew McCutchen did well to cover up for those two key contributors, as he went 2-for-4 and scored the team’s only run of the night when Gaby Sanchez singled him home in the fourth.
It might have been desperation that fueled manager Clint Hurdle’s misguided attempt to generate a run via a suicide squeeze in the sixth. Alex Presley banged a triple into the right field corner with one out, bringing Clint Barmes to the plate in a 1-1 game.
Instead of relying on Barmes to put the ball in play to score the run, Hurdle ordered the squeeze bunt. The strategy must’ve been obvious, because the Reds pitched out, leaving Presley dead at the plate after catcher Hanigan applied the easy tag.
Ironically, the Reds scored the eventual game-winning run in the bottom of the inning when Cincy manager Dusty Baker got out his players’ way and let them hit. Former Pirate Ryan Ludwick led off with a double to left, and Jay Bruce launched a long fly to center that advanced Ludwick to third.
That’s when Scott Rolen popped a sacrifice fly to left to plate Ludwick. No word on whether Baker thought of bluffing a bunt just to troll Hurdle and the Bucs.
After the managerial blunder that wasted the Pirates’ only extra-base hit, the visitors went very quietly in the final three innings, with only pinch-hitter Jeff Clement’s single in the ninth keeping the Reds from facing the minimum during that span.
Following Bailey’s final inning, Sam LeCure and J.J. Hoover each tossed a scoreless frame to close out the Reds’ 87th win of the season against 57 losses. Cincinnati is now 11.5 games ahead of St. Louis for the NL Central crown; the Reds are 30 games over .500 for the first time since 1999.
Meanwhile, the Pirates are at risk of registering their 20th consecutive losing season in the wake of this late-summer freefall. Pittsburgh must go 10-10 the rest of the way to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992, also the year of the Bucs’ last playoff berth.
They will attempt to climb back up the standings this weekend when they challenge Chicago in a four-game series at Wrigley Field. The set begins Friday at 2:20 p.m. after the team’s final off day of the regular season.