It couldn’t get worse for the Pittsburgh Pirates offense, right?
They came into Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets with by far the fewest runs in baseball (2.86 per game), the worst OPS of any team since the punchless 1981 Toronto Blue Jays, and the worst on-base percentage since the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas. It couldn’t possibly get worse.
It got worse.
The Pirates lost 3-1 to the Mets on Wednesday afternoon, a defeat in which they strung together only five hits and seven total baserunners. And the struggles came at the hands of Mets starter Jonathon Niese, a 25-year-old with a 4.44 career earned run average. It was the first time this season that Niese pitched into the 8th inning, and the lefty recorded five strikeouts on the afternoon.
“He was very effective, kept the ball down, bought some territory inside from time to time with the cutter,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said about the opposing pitcher. “He mixed all his pitches. We weren’t able to put good swings on it. That was pretty obvious.”
The lone Pirates run came in the 6th inning. Josh Harrison hit a leadoff double to extend his team-leading hitting streak to nine games. It was just the second Pittsburgh hit up to that point. After Gorkys Hernandez struck out, Andrew McCutchen knocked in Harrison and finally gave the assembled 25,731 fans something to stand up and cheer a Pirates player crossing home plate. The applause was short-lived, though, as cleanup hitter Neil Walker grounded into an inning-ending double play on the next pitch.
New York struck first with a pair of singles off Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton by Kirk Niewenhuis and Lucas Duda. They extended that lead yet again in the 5th. Rob Johnson lead off with a single, and was sacrificed over by Niese. Mike Baxter followed with a single and Niewenhuis hit a sacrifice fly to score Johnson. David Wright added an insurance run with a RBI double to score Baxter and put the Mets up 3-0. Wright ended the contest 1-for-4, and his NL-leading batting average sits at .399.
Morton kept the game close on the mound, but was not overpowering. He was tagged for eight hits and three runs, while only striking out Daniel Murphy, but notched 21 of 28 first-pitch strikes and was happy to spare his bullpen a bit by throwing seven efficient innings.
“You can attack guys, especially early in the count,” Morton said. “First-pitch strikes, establishing yourself in the zone and working ahead. I think it’s that simple, you don’t have to make perfect pitches. I think at times we’re all guilty of giving the hitters too much credit. And that’s what I’ve been trying to avoid.”
The Pirates’ hitters had designs on tying the game in the 8th. Clint Barmes (who was the lone Pirates player to get on base twice, after getting booed for grounding out in the 2nd inning) hit a leadoff single, but pinch hitter Jose Tabata couldn’t manage to get on and neither could Josh Harrison. But first-time starter Gorkys Hernandez walked, and that was the end for Niese.
Then the Bucs got a break when Mets first baseman Ike Davis couldn’t handle a sharply-thrown pickoff attempt from catcher Rob Johnson. That put runners on second and third. But reliever Bobby Parnell chose to pitch to McCutchen with first base open. McCutchen couldn’t check his swing on a 2-2 pitch, ending the rare threat.
“I’m not always going to be able to come through, but you would love for an opportunity [like this] to come up,” McCutchen said. “Get the right guy, the right moment. This is one of the times when they come through. Oh well, shake it off.”
A bright spot for the Pirates, yet again, was the bullpen. Jason Grilli struck out all three hitters he faced, and Brad Lincoln pitched a perfect 9th with one strikeout. Pirates pitchers retired the last 13 Mets hitters of the ballgame, but the offense could not capitalize on that late-game pitching success.
After only scratching across one run Wednesday, the Pirates are on pace to score only 464 runs this year. There is a lot of baseball left to play, but that would be the lowest single-season run total in a full 162-game season since the 1968 Chicago White Sox scored just 463 runs in the so-called “Year of the Pitcher.”
New pieces to the Pirates roster may not come immediately, but that doesn’t mean the team isn’t looking to improve on an offense that has forces people to search through Baseball Reference for comparisons.
“We’ve always kept an eye open to get better every day, whether it be internally or externally,” Hurdle said. “You want to give guys that have experience… an opportunity to bundle some at-bats and get some rhythm at the plate.
“We’re definitely looking to generate some more offense, so we’ll be open-minded when, if, or where we can get it.”