Courtesy of StepOutside.org

This loss baffles, even by 2019 standards

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Chicago Cubs' Ian Happ, center, is congratulated by Nicholas Castellano, left,s and manager Joe Madden, right, after scoring a run in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Digest this — all of it:

1. The Pirates loaded the bases against Jon Lester in the first inning.

2. The Pirates loaded them again — this time with nobody out — in the sixth.

3. ... and again in the seventh, this time facing Tyler Chatwood.

4. Steven Brault allowed two hits, posting a career-high eight strikeouts against just one walk through seven full innings of work.

5. The Cubs — actually just Kris Bryant — committed two errors vs. one total for the Pirates.

6. The Pirates lost.

7. Wait, it's actually worse than that. The Pirates were shut out.

Hey, when you lose this much, this often — 51-71 overall, 7-26 since the All-Star break — you have to get creative. And that's exactly what the Pirates did throughout their 2-0 defeat to the Cubs on an immaculate, 84-degree Saturday afternoon at PNC Park.

Remember how Dejan Kovacevic warned everyone this squad would rip fans' hearts out all summer after the Pirates' 5-3 season-opening loss to the Reds? Well, it's still summer. And the heart is fully removed, barely thumping at this point.

Because teams aren't supposed to lose when all that up there in that seven-entry list comes together.

"It sucks, but that's why you play the game, right?" Brault was saying at his locker after the game. "You got two major-league pitchers going against each other. Jon Lester's been around for a while, pitched himself out of some jams. It happens. It would've been nice to win, obviously, but I did what I could. So I feel good about what happened. Sometimes it goes that way."

Sometimes it does go that way, Mr. Brault. Sometimes a beautiful, clean outing goes poof on the first pitch in the top of the seventh. Kris Bryant to the plate, fresh off his second error of the game and the Pirates squandering a no-out, bases-loaded situation against Lester. Game locked at zero.

Back, back. Gone.

"I threw it right down the middle," Brault said of his slip-up against Bryant. "He's got like 30 off of me at this point."

And yeah, Brault gets some slack here. That was one pitch. The rest of his 82 pitches — 87 percent of which were fastballs — were pretty great. I'll get to that in a second. First, we have to turn to this:

Oh yes. There it is. There's some boneheaded Pirates stuff. This officially went down as an E2, with blame placed on catcher Elias Diaz for chucking the ball past Colin Moran at third and into the outfield.

But was it really Diaz's fault? Nope.

"It's actually a pre-determined play that our third baseman knew the play was coming," Clint Hurdle was saying in his postgame media session. "Normally you like to see him break to the base. And we've used the play before, but there's no break to the base, so I don't know how that complicates the throw for your catcher. It might have been high, but the guy not breaking to the base also complicates things.

"We had a fundamental breakdown ... I just would've loved to see him getting to the base to see if he could've gloved the ball."

Surely, Moran can explain, right? I asked him at his locker after the game:

"The ball went a little high," he began. "I think maybe it had a little to do with me breaking on the bunt attempt, so that was probably my fault messing up Diaz's vision right there."

So there's your explanation. Diaz got the error on the sheet — and he's been bad this year, no doubt — but this one's on Moran. It's the kind of gaffe that's plagued his season. Last night, he dropped a foul popup along the third-base line that he easily should've snagged. Tonight, it was this. Bad teams make these types of ugly errors that span both the mental and physical requirements of the game.

Good teams do this:

And this:

It all adds up to 20 games under .500, 14 games back of the division lead and no hope in sight.

In a vacuum, though, today's loss can be distilled perfectly:

"So, end of the day, I think we were 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position," Hurdle said. "We left 11 men on bases. And [we were] 0 for 6 with the bases loaded.

"Pretty much wraps up the story for today."

Ehh, "pretty much," sure. But I have one thing to add:

Yikes.


• Back to a little positivity: Brault, huh? Told you I'd circle back on his performance. This dude is finding his rhythm as a starting pitcher in the major leagues. For real. This has been coming for a while, and he's been fantastic in spots, but tonight's line was his best. Ever.

"Best performance that he's had in the major leagues," Clint Hurdle was saying after the game in his media session. " ... He was really, really getting after it."

Brault said as much, adding that the consistency of registering regular starts at this level has allowed him to fully settle in and find that groove, on and off the field.

"I've always felt that, as a starter over time, I would get better, I would get back to the point where I was in Triple-A where I had really good fastball command," Brault said. "I think that consistency has been really helpful."

And yeah, he tossed 87 percent fastballs — 71 out of 82 pitches. That's ... a whole lotta fastballs.

"As you realize the fastball works — and the idea in my head used to be like, 'But will it continue to work? Once they see a scouting report will it keep working?'" Brault said. "And then you kind of overthink things. Stop overthinking. Throw the pitch that works."

Within all this, though, is another element: The pressure of starting. Brault's not coming out of the bullpen now. He's expected to step in, to take charge and to set the tone for the game. Hurdle has said repeatedly throughout the season that momentum in baseball is determined by that night's starter.

So, after a "playoff-like" walkoff victory Friday night, how did Brault feel about being tasked with setting the tone Saturday? I asked:

 Michael Feliz was bad. Francisco Liriano was not much better. Feliz allowed the Cubs' second run within a two-hit, one-strikeout eighth inning, while Liriano walked Bryant, hit Anthony Rizzo then nearly hit Javier Baez as well. Two wild pitches in, Liriano finally turned it around, forcing Baez to hit into a double play. He then fanned Addison Russell cleanly to escape the ninth.

So there's that.

 Lester's gritty line on the other side: six-plus innings pitched, four hits, five walks, three strikeouts. He threw 103 pitches, 61 for strikes. And yeah, twice he escaped bases-loaded jams cleanly.

Today's attendance: 28,359 — a packed house brought to you by the color blue.

• Rowan Wick recorded one scoreless inning for the Cubs to record his first major-league save.

• Happier days are ahead. Like Sunday. The Pirates travel to Williamsport, Pa., for the series finale against the Cubs in the Little League Classic. The team will spend the afternoon mingling with kids, taking pictures and throwing it back to the good ol’ days before taking the diamond for the actual game.

Brault's pumped about it:

"I'm super excited," Brault said. "Those kids are going to be super fun. It's going to be an exhausting day, but that's all right."

But...

"I love the way kids play the game — except high-fiving people when they give home runs," Brault continued. "I hate that so much. Can you imagine if I, like, went and gave Kris Bryant [knuckles] as he was running around the bases? So, that I don't like. But the rest of it's really cool."

Ditto for Moran, who calls Little League "pure."

 Obviously: All of them. Every last one of them.

THE ESSENTIALS

• Boxscore
• Video highlights
Scoreboard
• Standings

THE INJURIES

• Richard Rodriguez (10-day IL, shoulder)
Gregory Polanco (10-day IL, shoulder)
Francisco Cervelli (60-day IL, concussion)
Lonnie Chisenhall (60-day IL, calf)

Here's the most recent full report.

THE SCHEDULE

As mentioned above, the Pirates close out this three-game tilt against the Cubs in the Little League Classic Sunday in Williamsport, Pa. I'll be there for all the coverage, starting early in the afternoon as the players mingle with Little Leaguers and leading into first pitch at 7:10 p.m. Mitch Keller is scheduled to take the hill for the Pirates against Cubs lefty José Quintana.

THE COVERAGE

All our baseball content, including Mound Visit by Jason Rollison, Indy Watch by Matt Welch, and Altoona Watch by Jarrod Prugar, can be found on our team page.

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