With 50 wins in 81 games at PNC Park this year, the Pittsburgh Pirates should be pleased with how they handled themselves at home. Unfortunately, the past week on the North Shore took away some of that luster.
The disappointing stretch continued Sunday afternoon as the Pirates fell 11-3 to the Cincinnati Reds, the Bucs’ fifth loss in seven days. The regular-season finale at PNC Park got away right from the start, as the Reds scored five in the first inning to chase struggling starter Jeff Locke.
By taking two of three in the weekend series between divisional rivals, the Reds tied the Pirates for the top wild-card spot in the National League. Both teams are 89-67 with six games to go, including a final three-game showdown in Cincinnati next weekend.
The Pirates dropped 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the NL Central lead, putting their hopes of a division title in the long-shot category. Pittsburgh’s magic number to clinch a playoff berth dropped to two with the Nationals’ loss Sunday, making the final week mostly about clinching home-field advantage in the wild-card game scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1.
Of course, the Bucs could easily be carrying a two-game lead on the Reds if they had converted a pair of ninth-inning leads into wins over the past five days. Instead, Pittsburgh went 5-6 on its 11-game homestand, so PNC Park isn’t guaranteed to see another game this year.
Unlike Wednesday’s loss to the Padres or Friday’s debacle against the Reds, Sunday’s decision fell squarely on the shoulders of the starting pitcher. Locke, an All-Star in his first full major-league season, continued a downward spiral that has produced a 7.25 ERA in his last 43 innings.
As has been his tendency, Locke’s lack of control got him into trouble again. He walked two while loading the bases with one out in the first, giving Jay Bruce an opportunity to deliver a large blow. The Reds slugger did just that, shooting a three-run double into the gap in left-center. Two batters later, Todd Frazier hammered a two-run homer over the North Side Notch for a 5-0 Cincy lead.
In light of his late-season slump, it’s looking quite unlikely that Locke will earn a spot on the Pirates’ initial postseason roster. He was done after one inning, but reliever Jeanmar Gomez didn’t fare much better. Chris Heisey and Brandon Phillips each drove in a run in the second to put the Reds ahead by a touchdown and extra point on this first Sunday of autumn.
Pirates rookie pitcher Brandon Cumpton calmed things down in the middle innings, giving the home team a chance at a comeback. Neil Walker and Travis Snider delighted the 23rd sellout crowd of the year with solo dingers off Reds starter Bronson Arroyo, then Justin Morneau made it 7-3 with a sacrifice fly in the fifth.
But that’s all the Bucs would get, with Cincy relievers Alfredo Simon, Manny Parra and Logan Ondrusek shutting them down in the final four innings. The Reds, who added four more runs in the final two frames, outhit the Pirates 16-5.
Six players had multiple hits for Cincinnati, including three each from Heisey and speedster Billy Hamilton, who also added two more steals to his impressive early MLB resume.
The Pirates will start a three-game series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Monday night. Charlie Morton will try to make it back-to-back impressive starts for Pittsburgh, while Jeff Samardzija gets the call for the Cubs at 8 p.m. Eastern time.