Late dramatics fizzle for Bucs in ninth

Snell struggles as Bucs drop opener

PITTSBURGH -- It may not have simmered until the ninth on Tuesday but, albeit briefly, this one certainly had the feel of those dramatic Pirates-Indians games at PNC Park earlier this decade.

To the disappointment of those among the 19,109 in attendance rooting for the home team, however, there would be no walk-off win as there had been three of the last four times Cleveland came to town. Rather a spirited four-run rally in the ninth fell just short as the Pirates dropped the opening game of the Interleague series, 5-4.

"You can't fault the effort," manager John Russell said of his team's frantic comeback attempt against an Indians bullpen that entered with more blown saves, 13, than ones converted, 12. "We came up with some big hits. Unfortunately, we couldn't get that last one."

At the time, it looked as if the only significance behind Adam LaRoche's solo homer to lead off the final frame would be that it would keep the Pirates from being shut out for the seventh time this season. As it would turn out, it ignited an offense that had been limited to four hits by rookie starter David Huff through the first eight innings.

Robinzon Diaz followed with a single. RBI doubles by pinch-hitter Brandon Moss and Jack Wilson then shrunk a five-run deficit to two.

"To finally come to life late and score some runs, get some guys on, that was good to see," LaRoche said. "We haven't, unfortunately, been doing a whole lot of that lately."

The Pirates then continued to make it interesting against Indians closer Kerry Wood. A two-out single by Andrew McCutchen extended the center fielder's hitting streak to 11 games. It also brought Pittsburgh to within one run.

After consecutive walks to load the bases, it was back to LaRoche. He worked the count full after falling behind 1-2, but hit a lazy flyout to right to end the game.

"They had me on the ropes," Wood said. "We got a little help with that last at-bat. He could have just as easily not swung at it and walked to tie the game."

Instead, the Pirates dropped to a season-worst eight games under .500.

The frenzy that was stirred up in the ninth diverted a bit of attention away from starter Ian Snell, whose sudden loss of concentration and command back in the third inning led to his premature exit and the team's early hole.

The night started out fine for Snell, as those early efficiency issues he has had seemed to be temporarily righted. The righty needed only 20 pitches to get through two innings and threw first-pitch strikes to nine of the first 11 hitters he faced.

It all seemed to crumble, however, during the span of Grady Sizemore's third-inning at-bat. With runners on the corners and one out, Snell threw a 2-2 pitch to Sizemore, who had been activated off the disabled list earlier in the day, that was called ball three.

Though Snell stayed away from making excuses afterward, his body language on the mound made it clear he thought he had the strikeout.

"I'm not going to say that because I don't want you guys saying that I make excuses," Snell said. "It was my fault. I'm not going to point the finger. The umpire didn't give it to me."

Three pitches later, Sizemore laced what looked to be an RBI single into right. That is, until Steve Pearce, recently called up from Triple-A where he had played right just twice all season, misread the ball. He took a bad route and the ball bounced past him all the way to the wall.

"He hasn't been out there a lot," Russell said, "but he's been out there enough that he should be able to make plays."

McCutchen eventually ran it down, but not before two runs crossed home as Sizemore tripled.

And from there, it all unraveled.

Snell would face just four more hitters. Two would walk before Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta upped the Indians lead to four with a two-run double. Snell fell behind each of those final four hitters. What seemed to a potentially efficient outing ended as a 70-pitch, 2 2/3-inning affair.

"He wasn't doing very good," said Russell, unwilling to sugarcoat the performance. "It just kept snowballing on him, so we had to make a move. He just lost his focus and his command just left."

It was the second time this season that the right-hander had to be pulled before finishing three innings.

"I wanted to stay in and keep going, but they had a decision to make and I think they made the right decision," Snell said. "I didn't execute the pitches and it just went south."

With the loss, Snell slipped to 2-8 this season with an ERA of 5.36. But the concern over Snell's struggles runs much deeper than this season. Since the midway point of the 2007 season, he has a 5.24 ERA and an 11-27 record in a span that includes his last 61 starts.

"He hasn't thrown the ball very well," Russell said. "He has moments. He has innings. But he is having trouble piecing together from start to finish."

So what's the next step?

Snell does have one option year left, which means the Pirates could send him down as they did with Tom Gorzelanny around this time last year. Triple-A Indianapolis starter Virgil Vasquez was pulled from his start on Tuesday after one inning, and it was confirmed that his early exit was because the Pirates wanted to keep him available as an option for the big league club.

He could be an option if the Pirates are interested in making a move. Or, maybe the more likely scenario, the Pirates could call on Vazquez as bullpen reinforcement after Snell's start forced five relievers to have to pitch on Tuesday.

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