05/12/2008 9:15 PM ET
Pirates' bats mostly silent in Game 2
But team feels positive after taking six of seven on homestand
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates boarded a flight to St. Louis on the heels of an 8-1 loss to the Braves in the second game of a doubleheader on Monday, but there was no sour taste left by how this most recent homestand ended.
"It's not a bad ending," said Adam LaRoche, whose two-run homer in Game 1 helped to seal the Pirates' 5-0 win in that game. "This just happened to be the last one before we leave. All in all, it was a great homestand. They weren't really lucky wins. I think we outplayed them."
Trying to cap off a perfect homestand with a sweep of the Braves, John Van Benschoten couldn't mirror the success of the Pirates' starters over the past week. And when he stumbled early, so did the Pirates.
However, looking past Van Benschoten's struggles, the Pirates couldn't be more content with how this seven-game stretch played out.
It started with a sweep of the struggling Giants, a club not expected to do much this season. But winning the first three in a four-game series against perennial contenders, the Braves, did more than just up the total in the win column. After skidding to three losses against the Nationals, this pick-me-up has the Pirates believing that they have the potential to compete with the best.
"They are obviously a very respected team," LaRoche added. "So, to come in and take three out of four is a big step for us."
When Monday's Game 1 win gave the Pirates a six-game winning streak -- the longest for the team since it reeled off 10 consecutive wins back in 2004 -- they saw themselves back at just one game under .500 for the first time since April 18.
"It was a great homestand for us," manager John Russell said. "We feel pretty good about how we're playing the game, and we realize that if we get all the pieces working together we're a pretty good ballclub.
Added Jason Bay: "That was a big series for us. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, we're going to go as far as our pitchers take us."
In those six wins, Pirates starters posted a 4-0 record and a 2.29 ERA. They averaged nearly 6 2/3 innings per start.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, however, Van Benschoten wasn't able to take advantage of his chance to make a new impression in front of a new management. His spot start didn't go as smoothly as he had hoped and neither did the aftermath, which saw Van Benschoten optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis rather than joining the club on the plane to St. Louis.
The Pirates had won Game 1 hours earlier behind six scoreless innings from Zach Duke and a clutch two-out, three-run double by Freddy Sanchez. Van Benschoten then ran into an Atlanta team poised to break out of an offensive funk.
The Pittsburgh righty had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since being called up on April 27. However, he took the mound not having seen any game time since May 3.
But Van Benschoten didn't attribute his final line score -- four-plus innings, six earned runs, nine hits -- to the long layoff.
"If you don't pitch for eight or nine days, that shouldn't matter," he said. "You should prepare yourself to pitch. For the most part, I think I was prepared. Just toward the end I think I fell off."
For the first three innings, it looked as if the newfound aggressiveness and confidence that Russell lauded Van Benschoten for prior to the game was going to make a difference. The right-hander's pitches were consistently around the strike zone. He threw a first-pitch ball to just three of the 12 hitters he'd face in those first three frames.
"My pitches were down and everything was rolling around well," he said.
"I thought he threw the ball well," Russell added.
But the Braves were due to break out of their slump. They scored their first run in 20 innings in the third before Van Benschoten -- and the Pirates' defense -- allowed two more the following inning to spot Atlanta a two-run lead.
An error by Doug Mientkiewicz at third helped the Atlanta cause and marked the fifth of what would be six errors on the afternoon for the Pirates. All six would be committed by someone different, including three different errors by three different Pirates third baseman.
Van Benschoten would be chased the following inning, with a three-run Brian McCann homer marking the biggest blow.
"I think the last few innings the ball was just getting up," said Van Benschoten, who is winless in his 10 starts over the past year.
To Tim Hudson's credit, Van Benschoten would have had to have been near perfect to match the Atlanta ace, who now has six wins on the season. The Bucs benefited from a fielding error to score once in the first, but would connect for just one more hit off Hudson in his seven innings of work.
"He was phenomenal," Russell said. "He changed speeds. He kept us off the plate. He kept us off balance the whole game."
Despite the loss, the Pirates finished their season series against Atlanta with a 5-2 record and upped their record at PNC Park to 12-8.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.