Pirates falter against AL East clubs

Rrrriiinnngg! Hello, Missing Persons Bureau? I wish to report the Pirates’ offense missing . . .

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ hot start, followed by a seven-game losing streak, has Pirates fans thinking, here we go again, while Pirates skeptics are smirking and saying, I told you so. Gone are the smart hitting with men on base and sharp defensive plays we saw during the team’s 20-8 start. Of course, recent injuries to Andrew McCutchen and now Ji Hwan Bae aren’t helping matters, either. The Pirates will also have to replace pitcher Vince Velasquez, now on the 15-day injured list with elbow tightness. After a so-so start to 2023, Velasquez appeared to have figured it out and has been the rotation’s best pitcher.

Last week’s three-game series in Tampa Bay against the Rays, the best team in baseball, had some overenthusiastic Pirates fans calling it a World Series preview. That kind of talk, of course, is premature. In any event, the series stood as a good test of where the Pirates are. Not to mention general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton are attempting to model the Pirates after the Rays.

How the Rays do it

I remember reading a New York Yankees fan message board where a poster commented something to the effect of, The Rays (bleep) me off. They keep winning every year with a bunch of nobodies. After the Rays’ three-game sweep of the Pirates, fans in Pittsburgh now know the feeling.

How do the Rays do it? They develop good pitching and surround it with eight good defenders who boast on-base skills at the plate. The big sluggers make the big money in baseball. Like the late Ralph Kiner was supposed to have said, “Home-run hitters drive Cadillacs. Singles hitters drive Fords.” However, analytically hip front offices know baseball is more a game of simply not making outs. As I write this, the Rays’ regular lineup includes an astounding five batters with an OBP of .366 or better. Only catcher Christian Bethancourt has an OBP under .300. It makes for a difficult batting order for an opposing pitcher to navigate.

Tampa Bay blues

On Tuesday, the Rays used an “opener” and six relievers, holding the Pirates to five hits in a 4-1 win. On Wednesday, the Pirates faced lefty Shane McClanahan, probably the best pitcher in the American League. Pirates starter Mitch Keller looked to be up to the task. The game was scoreless until a McCutchen solo homer in the top of third. In the bottom of the inning, Keller was the victim of a leaky defense. After two quick outs and two singles, it looked like Keller was out of the inning when Harold Ramirez hit a slow roller to shortstop Rodolfo Castro. Castro picked up his head and glove too soon and the ball rolled past him, allowing a run to score. Two more unearned runs followed when Brandon Lowe cracked a double to deep center.

If the 3-1 deficit were somehow manageable, all bets were off in the fifth when second baseman Bae, unaccustomed to the speed of the ball off the artificial surface in Tropicana Field, made an unwise throwing error after a hard grounder skipped off his glove, allowing a run to score and putting another runner at third base, who would also eventually score.

Just because you’re paranoid . . .

The Rays would win, 8-1, but not before a fourth-inning incident that saw Shelton ejected by crew chief and third base umpire Adrian Johnson during an obscenity-laced argument with home plate umpire Quinn Wolcott over what Shelton thought was a pitch-clock violation. After Shelton’s exit, Johnson unprofessionally looked into the Pirates dugout and taunted bench coach Don Kelly.

I’ve refrained from criticizing umpires in these columns for the same reason I oppose replay review. I think a team that deserves to win should be able to overcome bad calls. But the Thursday afternoon game, with Manny Gonzalez umpiring behind the plate, had at least seven questionable strike three calls against Pirates batters. Gonzalez was also involved in the previous night’s dispute with Shelton. One couldn’t help but look back at Tuesday’s game and wonder. Hey, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!

A two-run rally in the ninth fell short as the Pirates lost, 3-2. Most alarming about the series, besides the umpiring, is the Pirates uncharacteristically going 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position.

Blue Jay Way

It was hoped a return home to face the Toronto Blue Jays would be the cure. The Blue Jays were in the middle of their own five-game losing streak when they arrived at PNC Park. Slumps in baseball tend to get worse before they get better. Players begin to press and try to do more than they can do. It was the young Pirates lineup that pressed this past weekend. The Blue Jays, who boast several sons of former major leaguers, were the more poised team.

On Friday, down 1-0 in the first, the Pirates seemed to come unglued, making foolish outs on the bases. Bae led off the bottom of the first with a walk and promptly stole second. He then was thrown out trying to steal third, committing one of baseball’s cardinal sins by making the first out of an inning at third base. In the second, Castro was out at home trying to score when the ball bounced a few short feet away from the catcher. To add insult to injury, in the fourth Carlos Santana broke another cardinal rule, making the final out at third base while trying to advance from first on a single to left field. Bae, with 14 steals on the year, most of them gained easily, may have been guilty of overconfidence. Castro will always be an overly exuberant player. With him, Shelton must take the bad with the good and hope for more good. But the veteran Castro should have known better. The Pirates would lose, 4-0, held to four hits by starter Chris Bassitt and two relievers.

The streak reaches seven

On Saturday night, Pirates starter Johan Oviedo struggled right out of the gate, giving up four runs in the first inning and three more in the third. The Blue Jays never looked back, hanging on to win, 8-2 and holding the Pirates to five hits. The promising Oviedo has hit a rough patch. The Pirates have lost his last three starts, during which he gave up 19 runs in 13 and two-thirds innings. With hard-throwing Luis Ortiz, who impressed in four games late in 2022, waiting in the minors, it’s possible only Velasquez’s injury is keeping Oviedo in the majors for now.

On Sunday, the Pirates committed yet another cardinal sin. This time it was pitcher Roansy Contreras. After making a batter look bad on a pitch, he came right back with the same pitch. The pitch was a slow curve ball. The batter was Whit Merrifield. Already up 1-0 thanks to another unearned run — this time a throwing error by second baseman Mark Mathias on a bases-loaded, two-out grounder — Merrifield stepped up with two on in the third and deposited that second slow curve into the left-field bleachers. The Jays led, 4-0, and kept attacking, winning 10-1.

Baseball teams are never as good as they look when they’re going good nor as bad as they look when they’re going bad. Just as it was too early to make plans for the World Series when the Pirates were the National League’s hottest team, it’s also too early to write them off.

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