Hart much improved, albeit in defeat

Hart's best start as a Pirate not enough

LOS ANGELES -- After spending weeks trying to justify his struggles, Kevin Hart was finally able to simply let the results speak for themselves.

And still, it was not enough.

In what was by far his best start since joining the Pirates organization, Hart made one errant pitch and, just as they had less than 24 hours before, the Dodgers jumped all over it. Another late Los Angeles go-ahead homer resulted. Another loss for Pittsburgh on the road followed. Another quality start was wasted.

The 3-1 loss, much to the delight of 53,193 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, was punctuated by Matt Kemp's two-run homer in the sixth and sealed when the Bucs' offense went silent in the final four innings of the game.

With it, the Pirates went away without a win in the three-game series, despite trailing in only four of the last 22 innings played.

"You can't fault the effort," manager John Russell said. "You just get in games like this and it comes down to, unfortunately, one pitch or one play, and we haven't been able to execute that. Against very good teams, they take advantage of those things."

The Dodgers, who now seem to be coasting to a division title in the National League West, indeed came up big when they had to. Even as bad as things have been for the Pirates, no one is in the business of claiming moral victories. But Hart's step forward on Wednesday was by all means still significant.

The right-hander kept the Dodgers scoreless through five frames as he finally found some consistent command. For weeks, his struggles had been largely attributed to a tweak in his delivery motion, and though he and Russell had noted recent improvement, it wasn't until Wednesday that the results actually backed that claim up.

"The harder you work at stuff, the more success you have," Hart said, adding that he and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan have "put in the hours in between starts. It's a result of a lot less thought and being able to trust your body, trust your stuff, trust your mechanics. I hadn't been able to do that in a while, and I felt like I did that a little bit better today."

Hart entered Wednesday's start with a 6.46 ERA and a 1-5 record in seven starts since being acquired from Chicago. He had allowed at least three runs in each of his other starts.

The righty squeaked out of potential trouble in the first when he stranded runners at the corners by getting his first of five strikeouts and inducing a popup. And as the game progressed, Hart maintained the desired consistency in his delivery and, in turn, with his command.

"Today's what he's been looking for, I think," Russell said. "He's been working hard. He can build off that and finish strong."

Of the 97 pitches he threw, Hart, afterward, asked for only two back. The first was the sixth-inning slider to Ronnie Belliard, who Hart had attacked primarily with fastballs in the second baseman's previous two at-bats. But while trying to preserve a 1-0 Pirates lead, Hart left the slider up and Belliard delivered a double.

"He's not the guy you expect to beat you, but he had some really good swings today," Hart said of Belliard, who added an insurance run late with a first-pitch homer off Phil Dumatrait.

Even still, Hart assumed control back. He responded with a strikeout of Tuesday's hero, Andre Ethier, and quickly jumped ahead of Kemp, 0-2. He went to throw a sinker in, only it did the exact opposite. The high-and-outside fastball was right in Kemp's swing path, and the outfielder took it into the bleachers in right-center to erase a 1-0 lead.

"Sometimes in pressure situations early in my career, I was too tense trying to make things happen," said Kemp, who scored in all three games this series. "Now I let the game come to me and I'm having more fun."

The homer marked the 17th straight game in which the Bucs had given up a home run.

"It's one pitch," shrugged Hart. "I'd like to have it back."

As Hart fell to 1-6 with the Pirates, Pittsburgh dropped its fifth game of this now-completed six-game road trip and 89th contest of the season. With 18 games remaining, the Bucs need to win eight to avoid the team's second 100-loss season this decade.

"I'm just as unhappy with 90 losses as 100 losses," Russell said. "Until we start winning, it's a bad number either way. You have to kind of look past that now and look at development. I think the biggest thing is to keep the vision of where we're going."

After scoring in just two of 13 innings on Tuesday night, Pittsburgh managed just one tick on the scoreboard against a quartet of Los Angeles pitchers that was led by starter Hiroki Kuroda. The Pirates' run came back in the second, when Brandon Moss doubled to lead off the inning, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on catcher Jason Jaramillo's single.

Pittsburgh otherwise went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.

"We played these guys tough all series and lost a couple tough games," Hart said. "We'd like to be in their situation next year. You've got to take this and learn from it and grow from it. Next year, you've got to win these games down the stretch."

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