PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The Pirates entered game action hitting for just a .225 average, ranking 15th in the National League. The lack of offense resulted in several missed opportunities on Friday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Bucs had a runner on third with no outs twice but failed to drive him in as the Pirates lost game one to the Houston Astros, 1-0.
Offense woes have been the story for the club all season. While their pitching staff continues to impress, the bats just can’t seem to get it rolling consistently.
“When the game gets hard it looks more difficult to play than it is,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Nobody is beating themselves up more than those guys in there with those opportunities, when they miss them. We’ve got to find a way to continue to push through it.”
“You look back of where this team was when we started. We’d come off a couple really unsuccessful seasons and now, the product out there, the pitching has been in place. Defensively we’re playing good ballgames. We’ve got to find a way to push through and win more games. There’s no doubt about that. The offense has been the last piece to join the party. But I’m really impressed with the effort we’re getting off the mound by everybody, keeping us in ballgames. Offensively, I keep telling these guys, you know we’ve got to be getting close because it’s hard. When it’s hard, that means you’re getting closer. We’ve just got to keep fighting, keep playing and working through it.”
After righty Bud Norris struck out five over 3.0 perfect innings, Jose Tabata lined a first pitch fastball into right field for his first triple of the season. Tabata, however, was tagged out at home on a grounder hit by Andrew McCutchen to short. McCutchen was caught attempting to swipe second base to end the inning.
“Obviously it’s frustrating,” third baseman Pedro Alvarez said. “You want to get the job done. It’s just one of those things where you got to keep going. Everyone wants to succeed in that situation. It’s just the name of the game sometimes.”
In the sixth, Rod Barajas, who was just 1-for-13 (.077) this home stand, ripped a double off Norris into the north side notch to start the frame. Shortstop Clint Barmes followed by hitting a single up the right side. An error by Norris allowed McDonald to reach first base to load the bases. McDonald laid down a bunt up the first base line, and Norris bobbled the ball. But the Pirates were unable to drive a run in as Norris got a pop out and punched out two to end the inning to leave the bases loaded.
The third and final missed opportunity came in the eighth. Barajas picked up his second hit of the game — a single to start frame. Hurdle elected to pinch-run him with Josh Harrison, who was picked off first base. It was the last base runner the club was able to get off the Astros bullpen in the 1-0 loss.
Over shadowed due to the offensive woes was McDonald’s impressive outing.
“He pitched his behind off,” Alvarez said. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t give him the runs he needed. That’s as good of a start that anyone can pitch.”
“It’s part of the game. I’ve been that guy on the mound where I’m getting shelled, and my guys still believe in me, stayed behind me, played hard,” McDonald said. “They played hard behind me, good defense, good effort, tried the best they can. That’s all you can ask for.”
After pitching a hitless first, where he struck out two, McDonald allowed back-to-back singles to start the second inning. Chris Johnson’s knock to right put runners on the corners. Justin Maxwell hit a grounder to third for a double play, but Brian Bogusevic scored the first and only run that McDonald would surrender.
“You’ve always got to be confident and believe in your stuff and your abilities,” McDonald said. “I was telling myself, one run. That’s it. Time to keep my team in the game.”
Since giving up the run, McDonald allowed just two hits — a one-out double in the sixth by Jed Lowrie, who was out at third trying to stretch it into a triple, and a single with two outs in the seventh — over his final 6.1 innings.
“He’s been on a roll,” Hurdle said. “Very impressive performance tonight. Power with the fastball, sharp breaking stuff. Swing and misses…First pitch strikes again sets everything up. I think he was 16 for 28. A whole bunch of people were retired on three pitches or less. Just another very good outing for James.”
Overall, McDonald allowed one run on four hits over 8.0 innings. He walked two and struck out eight while throwing 107 pitches, 72 strikes. After pitching 7.0 and 7.2 innings, respectively, in his last two outings, McDonald tossed 8.0 frames for the first time this season.
“You want to stay out of the heart [of the plate],” Hurdle said. “That’s a team over there that’s had some success early in the season offensively. He was able to shave corners and get ahead that way. The breaking ball down for chase, occasionally for strikes. Rod and him seemed to be in a real good rhythm. They’ve been together working. It’s fun to watch this young man take steps forward.”
McDonald has ramped up his strikeouts. Over his last four outings, McDonald has whiffed 33 batters over his 28.0 innings after striking out no more than three over his first three trips to the mound.
“Just trying to get ahead of guys. Strike one, strike two,” McDonald said.”If the strikeout presents itself, I’ll try to strike him out but other than that just trying to reduce contact early.”
With the 1-0 loss, the Pirates fall to 14-18 on the season. They have scored one or fewer runs in 12 of their 32 games in 2012.