Bucs' comeback bid falls in 12

Bucs' comeback bid falls in 12

PITTSBURGH -- Really, the only thing that wasn't climactic by the end of the Pirates' 12-inning, 10-8 loss to the Cubs in Monday's home opener was how it ended.

It ended without drama as Evan Meek, the last man standing in the Pirates' bullpen, never found his control. After being summoned to take the mound in the 12th, he issued five walks (two intentional), threw two wild pitches and gave the Cubs the two runs that they would need to seal the win.

The Pirates put up little noise in the bottom half of the inning.

But take everything else that came before that deflating final inning, and the sellout crowd at PNC Park was treated to one of the more exciting home openers in recent memory.

The two teams combined for 26 hits. A total of 27 men were left on base. And by the end, the Pirates had no one left in their bullpen, no one left on their bench. It got to the point where starter Paul Maholm, who pitched Saturday, was warming up in the 'pen.

And that doesn't even begin to tell the story of the Pirates' spirited seven-run comeback. Or the potential game-winning RBI that instead became the game's biggest mental mistake. Or the premature exit from starter Tom Gorzelanny.

How's that for a home opener?

"You couldn't ask for anything more on Opening Day than maybe a win in the game," manager John Russell said. "The way we battled, you have to give the guys a lot of credit."

The offense battled its way back from a seven-run hole and put the team in position to seal the comeback win with dramatic ninth-inning flare.

The inning got off to a promising start, as Ryan Doumit led off with a double. He was taken out in favor of the speedier Brian Bixler, a prospect who had just been called up the day before. A groundout moved Bixler to third, and the Cubs intentionally walked Doug Mientkiewicz to set up a potential inning-ending double play.

Jose Bautista followed and bunted the first pitch he saw down the first-base line. The idea was that, with the infield playing at double-play depth, a bunt toward second base should give Bixler time enough to sprint home from third.

"They didn't put the sign on. That was something I decided to do," said a still agitated Bautista afterward. "It was a good idea. The game's on the line. We worked on the play several times in Spring Training, so I figured why not [try it]?"

That is, if it works correctly.

But Bixler never broke. And Bautista was easily tagged out.

"It's more of a safety-type deal," said Russell, clarifying that the bunt was not a suicide squeeze. "Bixler, in this case, just froze on it. If he takes off right away, then he scores."

So why didn't he break toward home?

"I just saw him put the bunt down, square around to do it," Bixler said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I wasn't expecting him to do it. On a play like that, you have to see the ball, and I didn't see the ball go past the pitcher. I didn't see it get down. I didn't see it go off the bat."

And once he hesitated, he knew he had no chance.

A weak groundout by Luis Rivas ended the inning, with Bixler still stranded at third.

The Pirates wouldn't get as close as 90 feet again.

"In a ballgame, you can probably look back at 100 things and say if that went differently things would have been different," said outfielder Nate McLouth. "Unfortunately, that just happened at a bad time."

Matt Capps came on to pitch two scoreless innings, giving the Pirates offense two more opportunities to push across a run. And after he came up with strikeouts of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez with Chicago's potential go-ahead run on third and one out in the 10th, it seemed like the team was poised to erupt for that winning run.

Capps came off the field, pumping his fists and yelling.

"I was fueled up," Capps later said. "I was just fired up."

The energy, however, couldn't stir up anything offensively.

In the meantime, Meek sat on the bullpen bench. Alone. Everyone else around him had warmed up and gone in. And then, with Russell having to play the odds and pull Capps in favor of letting Zach Duke pinch-hit in the bottom of the 11th, the Pittsburgh manager had to call on the 24-year-old rookie.

"It's a tough situation for a guy that's been on a Major League team for a while," Russell said. "Evan hasn't experienced that yet."

Up until the 12th, it had been a valiant effort from the Pirates' 'pen. They combined to limit the Cubs to one run in 8 2/3 innings. Meek couldn't match the success.

"I was just fighting myself out there," said Meek, who has now allowed two runs in each of his three relief appearances. "I was just trying too hard."

While Russell has said he hoped to be able to initially use Meek in less pressure-filled situations, the fact that starter Gorzelanny had lasted just 2 1/3 innings (matching a career low) gave Russell no other choice.

This one had the makings of morphing into yet another home opener disaster. The Pirates came into the game having won just two of their last 14 home openers. They had been outscored an alarming 85-29 in those 14 games.

So, when Gorzelanny couldn't find consistent location with his pitches for the second straight outing, it seemed like this one was quickly headed in that direction. He walked four, was charged with allowing six runs and threw only 36 of his 70 pitches in that span for strikes.

"I didn't get the job done," Gorzelanny said. "I take full responsibility for that entire game. It all starts with the starting pitcher. I didn't do it, and they had to play their [tails] off to get back in the game."

But the Pirates never conceded, and from there they began to scrape back.

They pieced together a five-run fourth inning. They added two more in the bottom of the sixth. Then, alert baserunning on a Cubs error and a slick slide by Bautista evened the game at 8 in the seventh.

They just never were able to get run No. 9.

"It's tough when you use every guy you've got," said Xavier Nady, who finished the day 2-for-5. "We could have easily given up, but you don't want to send your fans home seeing that."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.