PITTSBURGH -- Charlie Morton had difficulty getting the ball low. Nate McLouth had trouble getting the low call. And Mat Latos had no trouble with anything at all.
As a consequence, the Pirates were laid low, 5-0, by the Reds in Sunday's rubber game at PNC Park.A crowd of 20,042 had the buzz taken out of it by Latos, the Cincinnati right-hander who notched a career-high 11 strikeouts while blanking the Bucs on two hits through six innings. That was just the start of the Bucs' contribution to Pittsburgh's Marathon Weekend: The 17K walk-back-to-the-bench. Reds relievers J.J. Hoover (2), Aroldis Chapman (2) and Alfredo Simon (2) forced the Pirates to match their club record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game. The Bucs also went down on strikes 17 times on June 14, 1995, against the Dodgers and on July 21, 1997, against Philadelphia. The whiffs clearly displeased Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, to the point he declined to emphatically take the side of one of his guys who took a questionable called third strike. "I saw some big swings up there," Hurdle said. "[The Reds] have a club that can take some big swings and do some damage. We don't have that type of club. When we start swinging big, we're working to the other team's advantage." Cincinnati's big swings damaged Morton, who normally is better at keeping things in the park than a vigilant forest ranger. Todd Frazier hit a solo homer and Drew Stubbs a two-run shot in consecutive innings to account for most of Cincinnati's scoring.
Including his final frame in St. Louis on Tuesday, Morton has served up three homers in his last four innings."That's a red flag for a sinker-ball pitcher," Hurdle said. A year ago, Morton surrendered the fewest home runs of any pitcher to work more than 110 innings -- six in 171 2/3 -- only one of them by a right-handed batter. All four in 27 1/3 innings this season have come from the right side. "It's surprising and bizarre," said the right-hander. "I know I can keep the ball in the park, and on the ground. That's where I need to be. I have to look at it objectively and do something -- mental or physical -- to get the breaking ball back. The sinker is all I am." Morton had not allowed two homers since doing so in back-to-back 2010 starts, on May 22 versus the Braves and May 27 in Cincinnati.
Uncharacteristically, Morton also posted seven of his 18 putouts on outfield flies.His mound opponent, conversely, appeared to throw a key first-inning pitch too low, but had it work to his advantage. The Bucs' early opportunity to strike died below McLouth's knees. Seemingly considerably below: Cincinnati catcher Ryan Hanigan nearly had to dig out of the dirt the 3-and-2 pitch that was called a strike. Since that pitch, which drew McLouth's briefly-heated reaction, had come with the bases loaded and two out, it was fairly significant. Particularly since the Bucs would get only four more baserunners during the rest of Latos' six-inning outing. Hurdle didn't seem very interested in discussing the borderline location of that pitch. "When you start talking about an inch here or there ... you're talking about the wrong thing with the bases loaded," the manager said. "Two strikes ... you'd like to see a swing get off, and I realize sometimes that's easier said than done. The point also being: We have a tendency to run down what happened on strike three; we need to pay better attention to what happened on strike one and strike two." That sermon may have already been delivered in Sunday's postgame clubhouse, for all McLouth said about the key take was, "It was a tough pitch, but we had him on the ropes, and unfortunately I wasn't able to deliver in that situation." Not like Latos was getting the benefit of otherwise pinpoint accuracy during that first inning, either. He had loaded the bases for the Pirates by plunking Jose Tabata, then walking Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. First up with the bases loaded was Casey McGehee, who almost burned off Frazier's glove with his hot smash to third. But Frazier held on, to both the glove and to the line drive. "McGehee couldn't hit a ball any harder," Hurdle said. "That's just reaction right there," Frazier said, "a hard hit ball you just try to knock down, anything you can do to save the runners. Luckily it got in the glove, it almost snuck out there at the end." That helped Latos over his only hurdle. Whatever uniform he is wearing, the 24-year-old Virginian enjoys Sundays at PNC Park, where nearly exactly a year ago he pitched a similar game (striking out seven in seven innings while allowing four hits) for San Diego. "We had a chance to take the game in a different reaction in the first inning," Hurdle noted. "Once Mat got out of the corner and put his foot down, he found his rhythm and all his pitches."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.