CINCINNATI -- Trailing by one run heading into the top of the ninth on Saturday, the Pirates had a golden opportunity to tie the game with runners on the corners and no outs against Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. A popout and two strikeouts later, the opportunity was gone and Pittsburgh took its second straight loss coming out of the All-Star break.
Failing to convert such chances isn't a new problem for the Pirates, who entered the series finale at Great American Ball Park having gone 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position in the first two games against Cincinnati. The squandered ninth-inning opportunity also illustrated another similar problem for Pittsburgh -- failing to score runners from third base with less than two outs via a sacrifice fly.
The Pirates' inability to hit a fly ball to drive in a run has been especially alarming as of late, considering their last sac fly came against the Dodgers on June 14, when Neil Walker fouled out to first base and Andrew McCutchen scored. McCutchen is the last Pirate to hit a sac fly to the outfield, as he scored Walker in the first inning of a May 27 game against the Tigers.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said he's well aware of the problem, and he's made sure his players are, too.
"It's not a stat that I keep track of, but it would probably be one of the longest droughts I've had on a club that I either played or managed or coached," Hurdle said. "We have shared this information with the players, just so they know where we stand in the industry, in the league -- 30th, I think. That's another focus point, that that's the part of our game that we need to find improvement with.
With a total of 12 sacrifice flies on the season entering Sunday, the Pirates did in fact rank last in the Majors. By comparison, the Angels lead all of baseball with 41 sacrifice flies, and the top 21 teams in the category have recorded more than 20.
Hurdle said the opportunities have been there for the Pirates, who batted .276 and drove in 81 runs in 181 plate appearances with a man on third and less than two outs before Sunday. It's converting on those chances that has been the problem, and as a result, the Pirates are trying to take a more basic approach to such situations.
"I've played for managers that wanted you to be instinctive on it," Hurdle said. "If the infield is back, look for a ball down and hit it on the ground. If the infield is in, look for a ball up and just bang it to the outfield. We've tried to simplify everything for our guys. Look for a ball that's up, you can hit it hard, hit it where it's pitched and let the trajectory or lack of trajectory take it where it needs to go. Our guys are aware of it."
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.