The shortest start of Zach Duke's career sent the evening spiraling early. And some uninspiring assistance from the bullpen didn't help stir those of the 13,113 on hand at PNC Park hoping to see the Pirates clinch their first three-game sweep of the Braves since 1994.
Rather, Wednesday's 9-3 defeat to Atlanta was yet another instance in which the Pirates couldn't sustain momentum from an uplifting victory the day before. The team also lost a chance to string together three straight wins for the first time since the All-Star break.
"We played two great games," manager John Russell said. "You see what starting pitching can do for you. We didn't do that tonight."
The tone for this loss was set in the first, as Duke came out lacking command and fooling nobody. Three of Atlanta's first four hitters singled, giving the Braves their first lead of the series. After an out and a walk, Duke surrendered two more runs on Alex Gonzalez's single up the middle.
"Just wasn't commanding the ball," Duke said. "I wasn't able to put the fastball where I wanted to. The times I did, it found a hole."
It didn't get any better in the second.
After opposing starter Derek Lowe drove a ball into the left-center-field gap for a leadoff double, Duke gave up a single and issued another walk. That was all Russell cared to see. He lifted his starter with the bases loaded.
"Didn't have much," Russell said. "There's not much else you can say. He just didn't have much tonight."
Anything in particular that doomed Duke's outing?
"Nope," Russell said. "Just struggled."
Duke had never previously exited a start fewer than two innings into it. However, this did mark the ninth time in 2010 that Duke hasn't lasted more than five innings.
His ERA rose to 5.47 -- the highest it's been since June -- and his record fell to 7-13. The loss also snapped a modest two-game winning streak for the lefty, whose results have been up-and-down all year.
"It's tough," Duke said. "The toughest part for me is that I left eight innings for the bullpen to cover. That's what bothers me. Just have to put this one out of memory and prepare for the next start."
From a team standpoint, the quick in-and-out outings from the starters have piled up. With Duke's poor performance accounted for, Pittsburgh has had 12 starts last three or fewer innings this year. Six different starters have at least one to their name, with Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf owning three apiece.
And team results aside, Duke certainly can't afford to end the season without a bounce back. He's due to be arbitration-eligible again after the season, which puts him in line for a raise from his $4.3 million salary this season.
His inconsistencies to this point likely have him at risk to be non-tendered this winter if the Pirates don't believe the left-hander is worth the financial commitment.
Still, Duke knows what it will take to prove he can be an asset in this rotation.
"Just staying consistent with my delivery and locating that ball," he said. "That's it."
Duke's departure didn't usher in much better success for the pitching staff. Daniel McCutchen got out of the second-inning mess by allowing only one run. He wouldn't be so fortunate in the fourth, though, as Atlanta batted around and plated four more.
Russell went through six more relievers to piece together the final 6 2/3 innings. In surrendering nine runs, the Bucs' staff gave up at least eight runs in three of the six games played this homestand.
The Pirates' offense hardly had an opening with the Braves' early output, but the chances of much good happening appeared doomed before the game even started. Lowe entered Wednesday with a 9-0 record in nine career starts against Pittsburgh. No active pitcher has more wins when winning every start against the same team.
Lowe wasn't dominant -- the Pirates strung together three straight singles in the first, in fact -- but limited the damage to Jose Tabata's fifth-inning run-scoring single. He picked up his 10th career win against Pittsburgh with the six-inning start.
"The game pretty much came down to one pitch in the first inning," Lowe said. "We got three runs and they came back and loaded the bases, and it came down to the pitch to Ryan Doumit and I was able to make it and then we just kept piling on."
Lowe got a called third strike on Doumit with the bases full to get out of that first-inning jam.
The blowout loss prompted Russell to use 21 players in the contest. Two of them -- Alex Presley and Pedro Ciriaco -- made their Major League debuts, and both collected their first Major League hits in Pittsburgh's two-run ninth. Ciriaco drove in the first run of the frame with a double in his first at-bat.
"It felt pretty good," he said. "I was excited and a little nervous. I got a pretty good pitch to hit and finally I did it."
Presley then beat Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman to the bag to collect his after striking out in his first big league at-bat.
"After Pedro got his, it made me want mine even more," the outfielder said. "I was just glad I was able to get up there and get another chance tonight so I didn't have to think about it."
Brandon Moss made his season debut, too, also collecting a ninth-inning hit. His appearance pushed the number of different players used by the Pirates this season a club-record 50.
The eight pitchers Pittsburgh used matched a team record for most in a nine-inning game. It had been done three previous times, most recently in September 2007.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.