Saturday, July 23, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH - JULY 22: Paul Maholm(notes) #28 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the St Louis Cardinals during the game on July 22, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Just four times in most of four months did Paul Maholm allow four earned runs in one work night, so when he allowed four earned runs in about four minutes in Friday night's first inning, it was a huge surprise to ... well, just about no one.
This was the St. Louis Cardinals, after all, and this remains their favorite destination playpen, beauteous PNC Park.
"That packed house is good to see," said winning pitcher Chris Carpenter a couple of hours later. "I was talking to [Lyle] Overbay at first, and I was saying, 'To come here and see all these fans, it's great; it's a great place to play.' "
Isn't that nice?
There's no great mystery in the way the Cardinals have constructed a vulgarly opulent 55-30 record on the North Side lawn. It is traceable mostly to a decade of in-house wretchedness by the home club, but even given the historical realities, the noise St. Louis makes around here on offense is always bound to wake the neighbors.
The career batting average of the eight hitters in Tony LaRussa's lineup in front of Carpenter last night was a mind-bending .328. And that factored in John Jay's modest .233 and David Freese's incongruent .125.
So when you looked up from those hard-earned pregame nachos and saw four Cardinal runs on the board, it wasn't exactly shock and awe. Maybe awww ...
Here's a club that hasn't seen Pirates pitching since April 6 and still comes in here and bangs three first-pitch homers, which is either great scouting or great hitting or very likely both.
"Well, talk to me Sunday afternoon," LaRussa said in his office postgame. "I think Maholm just caught a little bit of the plate with them, and they didn't miss 'em. That team plays nine innings, and that's why they're having such a good year. Carpenter's been pitching great, and they still got four off of him."
Maholm fought back and hung around for six innings, during which the Cardinals were content to hit .385 against him (10 for 26) with three doubles, a triple and two homers.
Albert Pujols and Freese both slammed the first pitches they saw from him over the fence in that first inning, and Yadier Molina did the same thing to Chris Resop in the eighth, and it was probably that aspect of the Pirates' second consecutive loss that most rings with relevance in the week ahead.
The Pirates, it's become painfully obvious, do not hit the ball over the fence, which in any other summer wouldn't matter a whit except that this one somehow finds them clinging to first place in a looping dream sequence. The Cardinals, who pulled even with the Pirates by taking the first game of this feverishly anticipated series, 6-4, have gotten more homers from their third and fifth hitters (Pujols and Lance Berkman have 49) than Clint Hurdle has from his entire lineup, or at least from the one he wrote last night (43).
Thus, a person who can hit the ball over the fence should remain the primary objective of general manger Neal Huntington with the non-waiver trading period set to expire a week from Sunday.
Perhaps, in addition or in lieu of external options, there is a power-hitting third baseman who not that long ago received a $6 million signing bonus to provide exactly what the Pirates need at this critical stage.
Seriously, doesn't something have to be terribly wrong with Pedro Alvarez?
Hurdle's team needs a banger desperately with first place on the line, and Alvarez can't be trusted outside the city limits of Indianapolis?
The offense scratched its way back into this game with nine singles and doubles from Garrett Jones and Overbay but gave away two outs on the basepaths almost as if to re-emphasize its absolute zero margin of error.
Even a temporary lapse in their generally excellent starting pitching puts the Pirates in a bad spot, essentially unable to come from behind, particularly against teams with multiple bangers.
The Pirates have hit 22 homers in 49 home games, and just to put that in the starkest terms possible, the Cardinals have hit 58 homers in 53 road games.
That's just part of the recipe for a dreary weekend.
Don't think it would hurt to walk into the home clubhouse today and see No. 24 standing there, wearing a cap that's too big and carrying a bat that can do the kind of damage necessary to sustain this compelling summer narrative.
Gene Collier: email@example.com.