What has been a miserable month now includes a 20th loss, this one largely at the hands of the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly. Soriano stung Pirates starter Jeff Karstens for two homers in front of 36,914 at Wrigley Field, and that was sufficient run support for Chicago to top Pittsburgh, 3-1.
The loss was the Bucs' 18th in their last 19 road games and pushed the team's June record to 5-20. The Pirates have been outscored, 51-20, on this road trip alone, and the team is now in jeopardy of finishing a month with five or fewer wins for the first time since September 1998.
"There's been some good and bad," manager John Russell said of the past 29 days. "Record-wise, obviously [it's been] very bad."
There was some good in this latest defeat, most notably in the performance offered up by Karstens. He needed only 79 pitches to breeze through six innings and consistently found himself working in favorable counts. Of the 25 hitters Karstens faced, 19 saw a first-pitch strike.
The keys to his success? It was the same as it's been for weeks now.
"Throwing strikes, getting ahead and not walking guys," Karstens answered. "Any time I don't put free runners on, I think it benefits me."
But of the 55 strikes Karstens threw, he needed two of them back.
Soriano entered the game 4-for-8 in his career against Karstens, though without an extra-base hit in all those matchups. The Pittsburgh starter won the battle in the second inning, getting Soriano to fly out. But the Cubs left fielder took over from there.
He deposited a first-pitch curveball into the left-field stands in the fourth to push Chicago's lead to 2-0. Two innings later, a cut fastball to Soriano landed just a few rows over.
Both homers were solo shots, but especially maddening was that each came with two out.
"The home runs are going to come, but in that situation with two outs, it can't happen," Karstens said. "The first one, I was trying to throw a first-pitch strike, and he hit it out. The next one was just bad location."
Outside of having issues retiring Soriano, there was little else to find wrong with Karstens' performance. The only other pitch Karstens wanted back was a second-inning offering to Starlin Castro, which Karstens jerked away and into the other batter's box. Ryan Doumit was charged with a passed ball -- which led to an unearned run -- but Karstens took full blame afterward for the errant fastball.
"When I jerk one like that, he's not expecting that," Karstens said. "That one is on me."
Karstens has now allowed two or fewer runs in six of his nine starts this season and has pitched into the sixth all but once. He would have pitched deeper than that on Tuesday, too, had Russell not needed to call on a pinch-hitter in an attempt to push across a run in the seventh.
"He threw the ball well," Russell said. "He kept them off-balance and kept us in the game."
The seventh presented the Pirates with their most substantial threat against Lilly, who allowed just four hits through the first six innings. Down by two, consecutive one-out hits put two runners in scoring position for Ronny Cedeno. The shortstop swung at the first pitch and popped out to short for the second out of the frame.
Pinch-hitter Ryan Church then went down swinging on a nasty slider from Lilly.
"In the past, I've been hanging a lot of those pitches," Lilly said. "Guys either put a good swing on it and drive it, or if I haven't been throwing it good, they flick it out to the outfield for hits. I was able to get on top of it and bury it down and away."
"The strikeout on Church was the big out of the game for us," added Cubs manager Lou Piniella.
In the end, the only run scored off Lilly was Doumit's solo homer in the fifth. The home run was Doumit's seventh of the year, and his first hitting right-handed since Opening Day. It also ended a string of 17 homerless games for the Pittsburgh catcher.
After Lilly exited, the Cubs' bullpen faced the minimum in the final two innings to seal the team's third win in nine tries against the Bucs this year. All but three of those contests have been decided by two or fewer runs.
"It was a well-pitched game by both sides," Russell said. "We just couldn't quite get that big hit."
Pittsburgh has won each of the first three series against Chicago and still has a chance for a fourth with a win on Wednesday. And there was one other bit of good news by the end of the night on Tuesday, this being the big one: Only one more day remained until the calendar mercifully turns to July.
Not a soul will complain about that.
"Hopefully we can end this first half on a little high note -- maybe get a few series wins over the next week or so," said Andy LaRoche, who made his first start at second base since July 2008. "Hopefully we can get this month out of our system and just go from there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less