The Pirates lost 2-1 Tuesday night to the Oakland Athletics to drop their fourth-straight game and third-straight series loss. This fact is significant.
Over these three July series, Pittsburgh’s offense has averaged a below-average 8.4 hits and 2.9 runs per game. This fact is more significant.
In the 2013 season, the offense has averaged 8.2 hits and 3.9 runs per game, both 12th in the 15-team National League. This fact is most significant.
As poorly as the Pirates’ hitters have played since the team passed the halfway point with baseball’s best record, the empty production should be no surprise. The team that has given up the fewest runs in baseball has at the same time run out an offense that is the NL’s 11th-best in OPS.
That’s in the macro. In the micro, Gerrit Cole pitched seven efficient innings Tuesday night while his lineup floundered to only three hits the entire night. One of those was Pedro Alvarez smacking a solo home run over PNC Park’s center-field bushes for his 23rd home run, second in the NL. Other than that, only one Pirates player got past first base, and Starling Marte was at second for all of one batter.
Credit, as baseball continues to be played by two teams, must go to Dan Straily and the Athletics’ pitchers. The AL’s top-performing staff got seven strikeouts from the young Straily, who gave up just two hits and struck out seven. Closer Grant Balfour gave up the potential tying run with Jose Tabata’s leadoff single in the 9th, but flummoxed Andrew McCutchen and Alvarez with K’s to earn his 24th save.
Pirates starter Cole’s lone sin was imperfection. The rookie pitcher hung a changeup down the middle for Brandon Moss to smack over the right-field fence for his 16th homer, Oakland’s only two runs, leaving Pirates fans with visions of what the shoulda-been power hitter might have done in black and gold.
“Not where I wanted it,” Cole said with little more to add to the answer.
The Pirates’ best pitching talent escaped a walk and pair of singles unscathed in the first inning by striking out John Jaso with a changeup. He then retired 10 straight batters before Moss’ home run, and with the help of two double plays did not let another Athletics player past first base. Cole looks at the bright side of pitching with little run support.
“I think it’s fun. You want the best out of the other team. Any competitive person will say that,” Cole said. “You look up three innings later and go ‘Wow, I’m here already?’ That’s when you know you’ve slowed the game down.”
His longest MLB outing of seven innings adds another few paragraphs to Cole’s ongoing development story. After sitting through a 100-minute rain delay with practically no rain, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watched his 99-mph-throwing phenom allow just five hits and strike out four in what he called a “very, very good” start.
“The strikeouts will pick up as he pitches,” Hurdle said. “He can go to certain spots.”
For the 23rd time in 24 games, the Pirates saw their starting pitcher allow three earned runs or fewer. However, the team has a record of 14-10 over that span. Baseball’s best run-prevention team is still comfortably in a playoff spot, but no longer with baseball’s best record.
“We’re doing all the work. We’re not getting the results,” Hurdle said. “When you don’t score runs, everything is magnified.”
The magnifying glass is aimed above the Pirates offense, and rightly so. Losing your last three one-run games is merely regression for a team that was so lucky in such contests (16-10 to start the season). Run production is an equal part of the game, though.
Right now, all the Pirates’ offense is producing is below-average results. This team could use a significant upgrade.