While certainly content with taking a series win over the Dodgers to start the season, Pittsburgh still came in very much eying its first sweep of the Dodgers since 2000. The final score suggests that the Pirates never really were this game, though that was hardly the case early. As it was, the Pirates' offense had plenty of chances to chip away against Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, but the big hit never surfaced.
A potential rally was thwarted in the third when, with two runners on, Andrew McCutchen grounded sharply into an inning-ending double play. Another two baserunners were left stranded in the fifth.
And sandwiched in between was the biggest of missed opportunities. Two walks and a single loaded the bases with one out for LaRoche in the fifth. After watching Billingsley continue to move inside with each subsequent pitch, LaRoche laid off a 2-2 offering that he thought was down and inside of the zone. The opinion of home-plate umpire Ron Kulpa differed, and LaRoche was called out on strikes.
"I saw it down, but it's one of those things where you probably should swing at it if it's close, because you don't want to leave anything in the umpire's hands," LaRoche said. "It was frustrating not capitalizing. We can't let opportunities like that pass us."
Paul Maholm was then called out on strikes to end the inning.
"Billingsley did a good job getting out of some jams, made some tough pitches on us," manager John Russell said. "We had a few chances."
Jeff Clement had the afternoon's only productive at-bat with a runner in scoring position -- his pinch-hit sacrifice fly plated a run in the sixth -- but by then the club's fate was all but sealed. Despite chasing Billingsley from the game with one out in the fifth and an elevated pitch count of 107, the Pirates left eight runners stranded during the first six innings.
"You always want to be that guy to stop [a losing streak]," said Billingsley, who hadn't won since August.
The loss would be shouldered by Maholm, who continued a string of adequate-though-not-exceptional performances by the club's starters. Maholm labored through six innings, which were made a bit more cumbersome than necessary by three infield errors committed behind him.
As Maholm aptly defined it, his outing essentially came down to two pitches. The first was a high fastball that Rafael Furcal turned into a third-inning leadoff double. Furcal eventually came around to score to put the Dodgers up, 2-0.
The big blow then came in the fifth, when Maholm threw an ineffective sinker to infielder Ronnie Belliard. Belliard, who finished a single short of the cycle, took the 0-1 pitch over the center-field wall for a two-run homer.
"[It was] a sinker that didn't do a whole lot except for go about 405 feet," said Maholm, second guessing the pitch selection as much as the lack of execution. "I agreed with it and I threw with it. In my mind going into it, I wanted to throw something different. It happens during a course of the game, just not every time you give up a home run. It's part of getting back into the swing of things. It cost us."
On the positive side, Maholm did command his curveball and changeup better than he had all spring.
"That's the best I've felt overall all year," said Maholm, who has still never won his first start in any of the five seasons in which he began the year in the big leagues. "I just made two stupid pitches. That's on me."
The three-run deficit the Bucs had when Maholm's day ended got bigger in a hurry, and it didn't help Hayden Penn's chances at sticking on this club. Penn, the last pitcher to make the roster out of camp, was battered for six straight hits and four runs to begin the seventh.
The immediate consequence was having a still-manageable deficit snowball out of hand. In a larger sense, though, Penn could make the Pirates' bullpen-related decisions easier when they surface later this month if he can't do any better.
Penn, whom the team claimed off waivers during the final week of the season, is expected to be given three weeks to impress before the Pirates have to decide how to fit both rehabbing reliever Joel Hanrahan and a fifth starter on the roster. To do so, the Pirates are going to have to take away one of their current seven relievers.
"Just too many balls left up over the plate," Russell said of Penn's outing. "We'll keep looking at him. We carried him for a reason. He has a good arm. He just has to iron things out."
If there was a bright spot to be found on the day, it came from Delwyn Young, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances. Following up a stellar spring, Young made the most of his first start of the season. His two doubles accounted for the team's only extra-base hits.