Thursday, July 10, 2008

Astros-Pirates Liveblog

With the Pittsburgh Pirates going for their third three-game sweep of the 2008 season, you know it’s time for another riveting liveblog! I went to bed last night with the Pirates trailing Houston 3-1 in the sixth inning at PNC Park…no, I’m not on a 10-year-old’s sleep schedule; the two teams were in the midst of the second rain delay of a stormy summer night at 11:50 p.m.

Even though I embarrassingly quit my viewership early, this morning I was happily surprised to see that Our Buccos had rallied with three in the eighth to win 4-3. The Pirates’ lone all-star representative, Nate McLouth, drove in the tying and go-ahead runs as part of his three RBI night. Tonight, it’s the final game of the series between the bottom two teams in a suddenly newsworthy division, the NL Central. While the Brewers trade for CC Sabathia and the Central-leading Cubs grab former Oakland Athletic Rich Harden in a much-talked about deal, the ‘Stros and the Bucs will duke it out in Pittsburgh.

7:05 p.m. – Pirates’ starter John Van Benschoten (JVB from here on out) starts with a flourish by getting South Atlantic League legend Hunter Pence to pop out to second baseman Freddy Sanchez. Then Kaz Matsui stares at a third strike! For a guy with a major-league ERA over 10, one would think JVB would benefit greatly from a quiet, quick start to this one. Hard to believe he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, considering his poor track record in the bigs.

7:11 – JVB plunks The Puma, Lance Berkman, with what appeared to be a cut fastball. Van Benschoten has MLB-caliber stuff, but his location and pitch sequence seem to hurt him more than most guys. Now he walks Carlos Lee – we have The Puma and El Caballo (The Horse) on the basepaths. It sounds scary, but it isn’t.

7:13 – Now that was scary. A fastball tails over the middle to Geoff Blum, who promptly crushes it over the Clemente Wall into the first row of seats. 3-0 Astros. Oh, no again. I really feel for JVB; it looks like he took that dinger pretty hard. Bob Walk says he now has “no margin for error” for the rest of the night. I would agree, unfortunately.

7:17 – Back-to-back singles from old Bucco great Ty Wigginton and Michael Bourn put runners on first and third with two outs. Remember when there was no one on and two out? Brad Ausmus is up next, as soon as pitching coach Jeff Andrews gets done talked to JVB and Ryan Doumit. Ausmus is possibly the worst hitter in the majors, so maybe this is a respite.

7:20 – Unreal. Ausmus bloops a single to right-center, just in front of a charging McLouth. Wigginton scores to make it 4-0. Brian Moeller bats for Houston before he throws a pitch; he’s gotta love that. JVB strikes Moehler out swinging on a good curveball to end the top of the first. Lanny Frattare gives us the damage: four runs on four hits, close to 40 pitches. Hey, at least he got two Ks! Ugh…let’s just move on.

7:24 – Back for the bottom of the first with a cold Coors Light in hand. Definitely need a brew with the way this one in going. We have a delay as a bat boy has to fetch Bourn’s sunglasses out of the visiting clubhouse. Now we’re ready as Nate strides to the plate. After a three-week slump, it seems like McLouth is pulling out of it.

7:27 – Way to make me look smart, Nate! The Michigan man rips a leadoff double into the rightfield corner. Bob Walk brings up a good point, “How many times have the Pirates been in this situation this year?” Seems like about a third of the time. Thank goodness the offense has been so good, otherwise the Bucs could be 15-20 games under .500. Instead they’re five.

7:30 – Freddy Sanchez strikes out on a called third strike. He complained vociferously, but it looked to be a fastball on the corner. On the first pitch to Doumit, he grounds out on the short hop to second base and McLouth has to hold. Ouch. Now Jason Bay has to clean up this mess and at least get a run home.

7:32 – With a feeble-looking swing, JBay strikes out and the Pirates don’t score. I know it’s early, but you’re looking pretty dumb if you brought a broom to PNC this evening.

7:37 – Matsui laces a double off the chain-link in right with one out in the second. So much for a chance for JVB to settle down. Berkman waves at a tremendous curve to strike out and leave the work to Carlos Lee. That quality of a breaking pitch makes you wonder why JVB isn’t more consistently successful. On a close call, El Caballo walks after watching a 3-1 pitch slide by. No problem though, as Blum skies the first pitch he sees into Jack Wilson’s glove. Good work to squeeze out of that mini-jam.

7:44 – Alright, now we’d better get this run home. With the benefit of a hard carom off the top of the Clemente Wall, Xavier Nady gets into third base with a triple. The suddenly torrid Adam LaRoche then promptly brings the X-Man home with a chopper to the left side. One out and a run in.

7:47 – Veteran Leader Doug Mientkiewicz pops out to center, bringing up former Kent State first baseman JVB. The man who once led the NCAA in home runs strikes out on three straight fastballs down the middle. Through two innings it’s Houston 4, Pittsburgh 1.

7:53 – Lanny and Bob discuss the AL East briefly, which causes me to remember that the Yankees are coming back to the ‘Burgh tomorrow night to play the rescheduled series finale from two weeks ago. As it turns out, both teams had tomorrow off in the first place. With the all-star break coming up, it shouldn’t be too tough for the players to tackle 10 straight gamedays.

7:58 – After a two-out walk to the putrid Ausmus, JVB then walks the even worse Moehler on a full count. For his sake, Van Benschoten had better get out of this.

8:00 – Pence hits a 36-hopper to Jack at shortstop. He flips to Sanchez covering second and the inning is over with no harm done, unless you count pitching coach Jeff Andrews’ rising pulse rate. Onward to the bottom of the third!

8:04 – On a tumbling play, first baseman Berkman is able to tag Jack Flash out after what amounted to a swinging drag bunt up the line. Fairly graceful play, although The Puma did roll almost halfway to the dugout after the tag. That’s gotta count for something.

8:06 – Make that 31 doubles for the NL leader in that category as McLouth drills a long fly that hits near the top of the green padded wall in dead centerfield. Centerfielder Bourn had trouble finding the ball in the air, causing Lanny to call his troubles a “Bourn Mis-Identity.” That’s a groaner even for me. Sanchez up with one out and a chance to drive in a second run.

8:09 – Freddy hits a liner that looked good from the centerfield camera, but is right at shortstop when the camera switches. I hate when that happens. Two outs for Doumit.

8:10 – Ryan pops one to center on a line for a two-out RBI! Big hit for the official Polish Prodigy-endorsed player and it’s now a 4-2 game.

8:12 – JBay scorches a grounder inside the third-base line for a double. The now-svelte Doumit shows off his improved conditioning and sprints around the bases to tally the Pirates’ third run! Nady then clubs a broken-bat liner up the middle, but Matsui is there to make the catch and end the inning. However, we are only through three innings and Our Buccos are only a run down at 4-3. Here we go.

8:15 – Time for the AFLAC Trivia Question! “Who as an Astro pitcher had the most wins against the Pirates? A) Nolan Ryan, B) Shane Reynolds, C) Larry Dierker or D) Roy Oswalt. Lanny and Bob agree on Reynolds, whereas the radio guys tonight, Greg Brown and Steve Blass, both select Dierker. I say Reynolds – he used to be dominant in the late 90s when I first started watching baseball.

8:20 – Berkman gains entry to the bases via a single to center, then gets a good jump from first and steals a bag. El Caballo hits a hot smash to third, where Mientkiewicz takes it off the chest, jumps up and throws Lee out. It was a great play for a man who rarely played the position coming into 2008. JVB then induces a popup from Blum that finishes the fourth. Can you feel the momentum swinging?

8:25 – The AFLAC answer is C) Dierker. Chalk one up for the radio guys. Bob Walk suspects foul play, as usual. He then calls Greg Brown a cheater, who responds with something that we can’t hear. I’ve got to give these broadcasters credit – these four have seen all 15 years of losing and they still keep the atmosphere light and entertaining.

8:30 – LaRoche, Mientkiewicz and Van Benschoten are retired in order. After four complete, it’s Astros 4, Our Buccos 3.

8:34 – The good for Ty Wigginton: he singled sharply to left to start the fifth. The bad: he is thrown out trying to steal by 10 feet. He never actually made it all the way to the bag, as Doumit’s throw tailed toward the runner and Jack more or less performed a takedown on Ty on the right side of second.

8:37 – The Gateway Clipper cruises by the park with its customary horn blast. Good times being had on the Clipper, as always. Good times in PNC, too, as JVB strikes out Bourn with a good-looking deuce. The only problem is that he has tossed 111 pitches to this point.

8:40 – Ausmus walks again! Now it’s the .000-batting Moehler trying to keep the inning alive. JVB falls behind into a 2-1 count, predictably. A check swing on a 2-2 pitch should have been called a strike, but is not. JVB then proceeds to fire one inside for ball four. Simply stunning. Here comes manager John Russell to grab the ball. If I had to grade the outing, it would be a C-. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it could’ve been worse.

8:44 – Are you ready for some Sean Burnett? We’ll see if Hunter Pence is.

8:46 – He was not ready. Pence taps out to Mientkiewicz for the inning-ending fielder’s choice. Play goes 5-4 and the score remains 4-3.

8:48 – Bob Walk delivers a rather humorous teleprompter presentation on potential rain clouds behind the press box. In all seriousness, there’d better not be any rain delays tonight. Jack Wilson places a grounder inside third for a leadoff two-bagger. That’s the Bucs’ fifth extra-base hit of the game.

8:50 – See if you can follow this: McLouth hits a floater to right-center that rightfielder Pence makes a diving attempt at, but misses. Wilson had to hold up in case the ball was caught, so even though it’s Nate’s third double of the game, Jack can only advance 90 feet. Nobody out and the go-ahead run in scoring position…nice.

8:53 – Jack comes to the plate on a would-be wild pitch. I say “would-be” because he is tagged out by the covering Moehler on as close of a play as you can imagine. One out and McLouth advances to third.

8:54 – Sanchez rips a 3-1 pitch to left-center where Bourn has to make a sprinting catch. As a result, there is no play at home and Nate scores to tie the game 4-4 on the sac fly. New ballgame as we roll into the sixth inning. I wouldn’t have predicted this after the top of the first!

8:57 – The X-Man runs down an impressive opposite-field drive off the bat of Matsui for the first out. Nady wears a jersey about four sizes too big, so you can always tell who’s sprinting around the outfield by the telltale billowing fabric. Berkman walks for the seventh Houston base on balls.

9:02 – The Puma, Lance Berkman (it’s his self-appointed nickname, in case you’re wondering), steals his second base of the game. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world because Lee walks.

9:04 – Hard drive on a line by Blum settles nicely into the outstretched glove of Jack Flash. Two away in the sixth and one pitch away from escape for Burnett. And he does it on the second pitch of the at-bat, getting Wiggy to bounce out to shortstop. Let’s get to the bat rack and take a lead.

9:08 – The Southwest Airlines Scoreboard flashes up on the screen, revealing that the Astros have left 11 men on base to the Pirates’ two. The Bucs offense has been above-average in the efficiency category this season, but tonight has been even better than usual. As I’m typing this, Bay and Nady go down on groundballs. I suppose it’s been a decent performance by Brian Moehler; he hasn’t given up the big blow yet, but he has blown a 4-0 lead so it can’t qualify as a good start.

9:14 – LaROACH draws the first Pirates walk of the night with two outs. Let’s see what Veteran Leader Doug M. can do.

9:18 – Mientkiewicz smacks one on the ground right to Berkman at first, who bobbles, then collects and takes the rawhide to the bag for the final out. Things are quieting down a bit as we proceed to the final third of the contest.

9:24 – Bourn leads off the inning with an infield single up the first-base line, then he’s sacrificed to second via the bunt of Ausmus. That’s all for Sean Burnett, and it’s double switch time! Mientkiewicz, who was in the seventh spot, is out as the new pitcher Tyler Yates takes his place there. Jose Bautista, or Joey Bats if you please, will bat in the No. 8 hole, where the pitcher was previously hitting. Got to love National League strategy! I had to explain that to Jillian, who is a Detroit Tigers fan and thus doesn’t see that kind of thing very often.

9:29 – Boner just committed by catcher Ryan Doumit: on a tapper in front of the plate, Doumit tried to get Bourn at third base instead of taking the sure out at first. As a result, the Bucs got nobody out on the play and the subsequent Pence groundout pushes Bourne home with the Astros’ fifth run. If Doumit would have taken the easy out, we’d be singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with a tie score.

9:34 – Kaz Matsui makes it two runs that shouldn’t have scored when he cracks a double to right-center, plating another run for a 6-4 Houston edge. Berkman is now being intentionally walked.
9:37 – Carlos Lee hits one pretty well to center, but McLouth is there for the final out. More work to do for the offense.

9:39 – In the dugout, some Pirates hitters study the scouting report on new Houston hurler Chris Sampson. Jose Bautista gets the first crack at the Astros reliever and grounds out. Jack Wilson strikes out, leaving it all on the shoulders of Nate the Great.

9:43 – A quiet bottom of the seventh comes to an end as McLouth is retired first baseman unassisted. 6-4 Astros lead through seven innings.

9:51 – Tyler Yates finishes a tidy top of the eighth by striking out Bourn. Just what was needed if there’s going to be any kind of comeback tonight. Sanchez, Doumit and Bay due up in the last half of the eighth.

9:54 – Freddy infuriatingly swings at a bad first pitch, flying out harmlessly to center. Time for Doumit to redeem himself for his seventh-inning mental mistake.

9:57 – Or not. Ryan taps a grounder over the mound that is handled by shortstop Blum. Chris Sampson has retired five of five Pirates that he’s faced so far. He’s mixing up his pitches nicely. JBay makes it a quick 6-for-6 by grounding out to Blum. One last chance upcoming.

10:00 – It’s T.J. Beam’s turn out of the Bucco ‘pen. He will face Ausmus, pinch-hitter Darin Erstad and Hunter Pence in an attempt to keep this game salvageable. Ausmus sends a medium-depth fly ball to Nady for the first out.

10:03 – Erstad shows off a vicious swing as he strokes a Beam delivery into the right-center gap. It crashes off the Heinz sign and threatens to extinguish a little more hope. However, Pence chops a ball to Wilson, who makes the sound play and gets the out at first.

10:05 – With Matsui at the plate, a foul tip catches Doumit in the side of the mask, knocking him back and onto his feet. That’s the last thing he needs since he missed a few games in mid-June with concussion-like symptoms. Count runs full on KazMat with Erstad at third.

10:07 – Beam massages a 4-3 groundout from Matsui. Head to the ninth!

10:09 – Miguel Tejada comes in to play shortstop for Houston, and closer Jose Valverde takes the mound to try to finish it. Bob Walk says he has a good splitter and “can be colorful at times.” Hopefully we don’t see any of said “color” tonight.

10:10 – Nady pummels the first pitch from Valverde to right-center, but Pence tracks it down with a big-time major-league play. That’s huge to start the inning…one down and it’s LaRoche’s turn.

10:13 – LaROACH cracks his bat for the second time tonight and gets a single out of it. Berkman couldn’t knock down the hard-hit ball as it got by him on one screaming hop. That’s the runner on the Bucs needed.

10:15 – Valverde gets ahead of pinch-hitter Jason Michaels 0-2. On a 1-2 pitch, the former Phillie and Indian hits one to the warning track in right field, just a couple of feet short of ideal. Two outs as Pence squeezes it. It’s all up to Joey Bats.

10:17 – “Let’s go Bucs! Let’s go Bucs!” 2-2 on Bautista and the crowd is heard from for the first time tonight.

10:20 – Joey Bats reaches out and taps a 3-2 pitch from Valverde to shortshop. I hope for a bad throw from defensive replacement Tejada. I don’t get my wish. Ballgame – Houston takes it 6-4 and the Pirates have to settle for two out of three instead of the sweep.

Considering they were down 4-0, it’s tough to be really upset about the loss. On the other hand, and there’s ALWAYS the other hand, we had a tie score through six innings and the game basically was lost on a mental error by “my boy” Ryan Doumit.

Yankees in town tomorrow night for the delayed final showdown of a prolonged three-game set. In case you’ve forgotten, each team won a game in blowout fashion. Good night and GO BUCS.

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