The task of facing three first-place teams (and one second-place club) had ended with a respectable fours wins and six losses. And from there, the Bucs were coming into a three-game set against a Reds team lodged in the bottom of the National League Central.
But Jeff Karstens would have to come back down to earth eventually and it would be on Tuesday, as he suffered his first loss. The Pirates dropped the series opener, 5-1, to the Reds in front of 23,686 fans.
Karstens had nowhere to go but backwards, after debuting with two wins and a combined 15 scoreless innings since being acquired from the Yankees. But his start on Tuesday, which was also his third of the season, can't be considered too much of a fall.
"Unfortunately a couple pitches he threw went out of the park, but other than that I thought he threw OK," manager John Russell said. "He wasn't quite as sharp as he has been. I thought he threw the ball fine."
The right-hander pitched seven innings, allowing four runs -- three earned -- seven hits and two walks. Pitted against Reds ace Edinson Volquez, though, that would be too much for the Pirates' offense to overcome.
Afterward, Karstens, who was making his PNC Park debut, admitted to not settling in on the mound immediately. He didn't peg any specific reason, but the effects were obvious.
For a pitcher who prides himself on control, a five-pitch leadoff walk wasn't exactly an encouraging start. Three hitters later, a home run erased Karstens' scoreless innings streak.
"I didn't really feel too comfortable when I first got out there," Karstens said. "I don't know what it was. I just felt a little out of whack."
But by the time he pulled it together, two homers -- that two-run shot by Brandon Phillips in the first and a solo blast by first baseman Javier Valentin in the third -- had pushed the Reds into the lead early. While Karstens' changeup to Phillips did catch the outside of the plate, the breaking ball Valentin sent into the center-field stands. But it couldn't be characterized as much of a mistake, according to the Pirates' starter.
"When I saw the replay on the board, [catcher Ryan] Doumit had his glove on the ground," Karstens said. "But sometimes you've got to tip your cap."
It was then another Pirates error-- the team's eighth in the last three days -- that allowed Cincinnati to cushion its lead in the sixth. Phillips reached when third baseman Andy LaRoche couldn't corral a ground ball to his left. When Phillips scored later in the inning, it marked the fifth unearned run the defense has cost the pitching staff in the last three games.
"A lot of times those balls come up," Russell said. "I think if you talked to him, he's going to say he should have made the play, but it's not as easy a play as it looks."
Karstens came into the game as one of only two Pirates pitchers since 1900 to win each of his first two starts for the Bucs while not allowing a run. Ernie Bonham was the first.
"[My] fastball command was all over the place," Karstens said. "You can't really do anything without that pitch. Throughout the game, I really wasn't doing much with it."
Despite the loss, the Pirates rotation continues to ride arguably its most consistent stretch of the season. With Karstens' performance on Tuesday, the Pirates have now had seven consecutive games in which the club's starter has pitched at least six innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs.
To put that into perspective, consider that the Pirates didn't post back-to-back quality starts in the entire month of July.
In what was his third start of the season against the Bucs, Volquez was by no means stellar, but good enough. He was at his best when he needed to be most.
The Pirates went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position against Volquez, which included stranding a runner at third in three of the first seven innings.
"When things got really dicey for him, he stepped up and made some pretty good pitches," Russell said.
That included a 95-mph fastball to Steve Pearce with LaRoche on third in the fourth, as well as a number of sneaky changeups that kept the offense off balance.
"He pitched a good game," left fielder Brandon Moss said. "He has a really quick arm action, and that's what makes that changeup so effective."
Though scoring opportunities weren't entirely absent, the Pirates inability to find a two-out hit in the seventh ultimately sealed this one in the loss column. A double and two walks brought Doug Mientkiewicz to the plate with the bases loaded. A phenomenal reaction grab by Valentin, however, snared a potential extra-base hit away from Mientkiewicz to end the inning and the threat.
"That ball gets through," Russell said, "it's a different story."
Cincinnati would tack one more run on before the end of the night. Right-hander Tyler Yates gave up an RBI double in the eighth. He has now given up nine runs in his last 2 1/3 innings or relief.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less