The second quarter of the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates season began in familiar fashion as the Bucs dropped their sixth extra-inning game of the season 4-3 to the Minnesota Twins. The Twins have now won 14 of their last 19 games, and the Pirates have not won an extra-inning game all year. Joe Mauer's first home run of the season in the top of the 13th on an off-speed mistake by Pirates lefty Antonio Bastardo provided the win for the surging Twins.
In the top of the first inning, the game appeared headed toward a repeat of last night's Pirates loss, with the Twins taking an early lead against an ineffective starting pitcher. Throwing 36 pitches in the first inning, Pirates starter Jeff Locke gave up a bases-loaded three-run double to Torii Hunter following a double, an infield single, and a walk. The best that could be said about Locke's first inning tonight was that it wasn't as bad as Francisco Liriano's second inning last night. Locke was hurt by a terrible call from home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg on what should have been strike one, and Hunter hit a decent outside pitch on 2-0 by sending it deftly to the opposite field. Nevertheless, here we were again: another night, another early deficit.
The Pirates got one run back in the bottom of the first thanks to the generosity of Twins shortstop Danny Santana, whose errant throw to first prevented Neil Walker from hitting into a double play after Josh Harrison's leadoff single. Walker later scored on the first of two doubles on the evening by Starling Marte. Marte also had a better night than last night in left field, throwing out Trevor Plouffe at third base in the top of the third to kill another Twins rally.
After the first, the Pirates were not able to do much against Twins starter Mike Pelfrey despite several hard-hit balls that were unfortunately struck in the direction of Twins fielders. Locke wobbled through the first four innings with deep pitch counts on several batters, but settled down to breeze through easy innings in the fifth and sixth. It can be difficult to tell whether Locke is nibbling on purpose or simply missing spots due to poor command, but whatever the trouble was, it went away toward the end of a 99-pitch outing that was a clear improvement over his recent debacle vs. the Chicago Cubs. He and the relievers who followed--Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Mark Melancon (the gun hit 91 a few times!), Rob Scahill, and Arquimedes Caminero--shut down the Twins for 11 innings. (When a pitching staff does that, the team usually wins.)
Late-inning pitching heroics set the stage for batting heroics from two familiar names, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Bucs trailing 3-1 and one out, Ryan Pressly walked Pedro Alvarez and Francisco Cervelli to put runners on first and second. Clint Hurdle demonstrated his lack of confidence in Jordy Mercer by pinch hitting with Sean Rodriguez, and Rodriguez was retired on a fielder's choice, putting runners at first and third with two out. Gregory Polanco, on the bench amid a nasty batting slump, was then announced as the pinch hitter for pitcher Jared Hughes. The Twins brought in lefty Aaron Thompson to face Polanco and Hurdle, again lacking confidence, countered with Jose Tabata. After getting ahead of Tabata 0-2, Thompson hung an offspeed pitch that Tabata smacked to center field, driving in the Pirates' second run. But the Twins then brought in Michael Tonkin to face Josh Harrison, who was three for three to that point, and he retired Harrison to end the threat.
Andrew McCutchen tied the game 3-3 in the eighth off Blaine Boyer with his first homer of the year at PNC Park and fifth of the season. After a double to Marte and intentional walk to Pedro Alvarez, Boyer was able to keep the game tied by retiring Francisco Cervelli on a fly out. Thereafter, the Bucs were shut down for three innings by Rule Five pick J.R. Graham and for one inning by winning pitcher Brian Duensing. They had a chance to lengthen the game against Twins closer Glen Perkins in the bottom of the 13th after a McCutchen single, a wild pitch, and a walk to Jung-Ho Kang, but Pedro Alvarez struck out to end the game.
Another night, another painful extra-inning loss.
Good: continuation of Harrison's hot streak (three for six); McCutchen's emergence from his recent mini-slump (three for five with a homer, hits in his last three at-bats); Marte's two doubles and renewed defensive focus; Kang's arm, growing confidence, and versatility; Locke's gritty resilience; Tabata's early resurrection from purgatory; relief pitchers not named Antonio Bastardo.
Not good: Antonio Bastardo; the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates so far in 2015.