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Embattled relievers cost Pirates yet again


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Geoff Hartlieb reflects after allowing three runs in 1 1/3 innings Tuesday night at PNC Park - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Neal Huntington admitted his culpability for the Pirates’ pitching problems on Sunday during his weekly radio show. He particularly lamented his inability to put together a solid middle-relief corps, saying he has not “done a good job at getting the right guys at the times from the right spots.”

That was never on greater display than Tuesday night when the Braves torched the Pirates’ bullpen for 10 runs over the last four innings to rally for a 12-5 victory at PNC Park. The Pirates (28-31) lost for the ninth time in their past 12 games.

Though Steven Brault needed 93 pitches just to get through four innings, the left-hander turned a 5-2 lead over to the bullpen. And Clint Hurdle felt good about the Pirates’ chances at that point.

“I actually thought we were in a really good place to move on from there,” Hurdle said. “We tried to get a fresh look, get the game in a better rhythm.”

Instead, the Braves got into a rhythm more akin to a basketball team by going on a 10-0 run to end the game. They also used the 3-ball – in this case, two three-run home runs – as effectively as the Golden State Warriors.

More than anything, the Braves’ explosion highlighted how bad the bullpen has become. Pirates relievers now have a 5.25 ERA this season.

Clay Holmes followed Brault and allowed one unearned run – the Pirates made three errors in the game – in one-plus inning. Embattled Richard Rodriguez followed with one scoreless inning, though he did allow one of the two runners he inherited from Holmes to score.

Hurdle then called in Crick, who has been as reliable as any Pirates reliever this season, to protect a 5-3 lead in the seventh. Crick had pitched 13 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings coming into the game and been scored on in only one of his 21 appearances all season.

However, Josh Donaldson walked with one out and Nick Markakis reached when Bryan Reynolds dropped his line drive to left field for an error. Rookie sensation Austin Riley followed by hitting a three-run opposite-field home run to right that put the Braves ahead 6-5.

Crick appeared to throw a good slider, but Riley hit it over the Clemente Wall for his ninth home run in just 18 career games.

“I don’t know how he hit that pitch as hard as he did,” Crick said. “It was almost like he knew it was coming.”

Added Hurdle: "You have to be really strong to be a right-handed hitter and hit the ball where he did."

When I asked Crick how frustrating it was to allow three runs on a seemingly good pitch, he could only give a wistful smile.

“Baseball’s a really funny game,” he said. “It doesn’t always work out the way it should. I just go out and try to execute my pitches. Whatever happens, happens. On that particular 0-1 slider, I think I executed the pitch. Just a better piece of hitting."

Everything kept working out for the Braves.

Donaldson belted a three-run home run off Geoff Hartlieb in the eighth to make it 9-5 and Freddie Freeman capped a three-run ninth with a two-run shot off Rookie Davis. Earlier in his at-bat, Freeman hit a foul ball down the right-field line that went into the Allegheny River on the fly.

Here is Donaldson's shot that was measured at 439 feet.

The Pirates have insisted since trading for Chris Archer on July 31, that they are trying to win now.

Granted, they are missing relievers Keone Kela and Nick Burdi, who are on the injured list. Yet this is not the type of bullpen that will allow a team to be a contender.

The easy excuse for not bringing in any help is that teams aren’t ready to trade this early this season. That is not necessarily true, though, as the Mariners and Royals have already admitted they have run up the white flag on this season and have told teams most of their veterans are available.

Expect more teams to follow suit in the coming days as plenty of them are in rebuilding mode.

Huntington has at least admitted the problem. Now, it’s time for him to fix it before the season slips away.

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