Ohlendorf shows chinks in his armor

Ohlendorf shows chinks in his armor

HOUSTON -- For a game that was all but decided a few innings into Tuesday night's affair, this one had all sorts of wrinkles in it by the time the Pirates' 9-3 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park was officially in the books.

It became evident that Ross Ohlendorf isn't going to be an instant savior in the Pirates' rotation. The Pirates finally saw another of their prospects show the power that was expected to be his trademark. There was the use of replay, an under-control performance by reliever Craig Hansen and another setback, though likely minor, for Freddy Sanchez.

Still, those facets couldn't totally overshadow the fact that this game once again showcased two clubs headed in opposite directions. The Pirates have dropped five of their past six and 15 of their past 18. Contrastingly, Houston has won 12 of 13 and suddenly finds itself as a player in the National League Wild Card race.

Let's start with Ohlendorf, whose outing on Tuesday marked his second since being among the mass September callups made by the club last week. This time the velocity was closer to being there, though that proved immaterial when his command wasn't.

"I made good pitches at times, but too many bad pitches," Ohlendorf later said, after picking up his first loss with Pittsburgh. "I was throwing balls when I needed to throw strikes and also throwing too good of pitches at times, too. I felt like there were some good at-bats, but that certainly doesn't get the job done."

After RBI base-hits from Adam LaRoche and Ryan Doumit in the first ran the Pirates out to an early two-run lead, this one snowballed quickly. A three-run homer by Houston's Lance Berkman in the bottom half of the inning erased that lead and was an ugly start to a short evening for Ohlendorf.

Ohlendorf allowed three more runs and a total of nine hits before his night ended at the four-inning mark.

"He had velocity, but was missing out over the plate too much," manager John Russell said. "He had trouble coming in on guys and they jumped on it. He couldn't really find his rhythm or get the ball where he wanted it."

The positives?

"I still like the aggressiveness," Russell added. "He just got hit."

The velocity wasn't exactly of the high-90s variety that was initially advertised when the team acquired Ohlendorf from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade. But it was consistently a few mph higher than it was in Cincinnati a week ago.

Ohlendorf reached 97 mph once, but otherwise had a fastball that consistently clocked somewhere in the mid-90s range. While he remains a potential power arm for the rotation, Ohlendorf cautioned against expecting that velocity to creep up much more than he showed on Tuesday.

"I think if I was consistently at 94-95 [mph], it's probably not going to be consistently much harder," Ohlendorf said. "I think I averaged about that earlier this year."

He did as a starter in the Yankees' organization last season, though Ohlendorf's velocity was said to have increased somewhat when he was shortened into a bullpen role this season. Regardless, with none of his pitches proving to be reliable, Ohlendorf handed the ball to reliever Jason Davis to start the fifth.

Davis quickly gave up two more runs, and has now allowed nine runs in 5 1/3 innings since being yanked out of the rotation and into a relief role. The distinction for the pitching positive from the Pirates has to go to Hansen, though, who pitched just his second 1-2-3 inning since coming over from Boston.

The oft-erratic righty threw six pitches -- five strikes -- in a perfect eighth.

While the Astros continued to pile on the runs, the Pirates offense went near silent after the first. Astros starter Randy Wolf set down 18 of the next 19 hitters following LaRoche's first-inning hit.

The only other highlight of the night for Pittsburgh came in the seventh, when Steve Pearce took Wolf deep for the first homer of Pearce's Major League career. It came in his 137th at-bat.

"I can get the monkey off my back now," Pearce said. "In the Minors, I was able to hit a lot more homers, so when I came up here, it was frustrating. It took a while, but it felt good. And hopefully it will start coming."

Pearce hit a combined 31 homers in three Minor League levels last season before hitting 12 in 103 Triple-A games this season.

"I saw a few changeups [and] I worked the count in my favor," Pearce said of his seventh-inning at-bat. "I figured he didn't want to walk me, so I was ready."

Pearce had been in the middle of another first, one inning earlier, as the Pirates got their first look at Major League Baseball's new replay system. A sixth-inning RBI double by Hunter Pence was upheld after umpire crew chief Tim Welke reviewed the hit on a replay television monitor below the visiting dugout. Replays confirmed that the ball hit off the yellow line on the right-field wall.

Pearce admitted afterward that even though he was standing just a few feet away from where the ball hit off the padding, he needed the replay to confirm whether the hit was actually a homer.

"The ball was hit very well. It looked like it hit the very, very top of the wall," he said. "It was so close that I just wanted to get it back in. It hopped right back to me, and I just wanted to get it fired in."

The entire review process took less than two minutes.

And as for Sanchez, the second baseman left Tuesday's game due to blurriness in his right eye. He will be reevaluated on Wednesday.

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