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Bullpen issues arise again in Bucs loss

Relievers lose lead, bats can't get it back as Pittsburgh falls to Cincinnati
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- Throughout the first week of the season, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often said his bullpen would be "interesting." Some nights, it's the good kind of interesting -- a collection of young relievers stepping up in roles they've never held before. Other nights are like Saturday.

After Chad Kuhl worked his way out of trouble for five innings, he handed a two-run lead to Pittsburgh's bullpen. But that lead evaporated in the sixth, when Dovydas Neverauskas allowed a pair of runs, and turned into a deficit in the eighth, when Eugenio Suarez clubbed a three-run homer off George Kontos, as the Pirates lost to the Reds, 7-4, at PNC Park.

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PITTSBURGH -- Throughout the first week of the season, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often said his bullpen would be "interesting." Some nights, it's the good kind of interesting -- a collection of young relievers stepping up in roles they've never held before. Other nights are like Saturday.

After Chad Kuhl worked his way out of trouble for five innings, he handed a two-run lead to Pittsburgh's bullpen. But that lead evaporated in the sixth, when Dovydas Neverauskas allowed a pair of runs, and turned into a deficit in the eighth, when Eugenio Suarez clubbed a three-run homer off George Kontos, as the Pirates lost to the Reds, 7-4, at PNC Park.

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"When you've got young pitchers, some are going to step up and some are going to try to find their way," Hurdle said. "They need to find their way sooner than later. They want to. We want them to."

In some cases, they have. Michael Feliz has steadied himself as the Pirates' seventh-inning man after a rough Opening Day. Edgar Santana seemingly answered the Bucs' sixth-inning question with strong outings on Wednesday and Thursday. But the growing pains for Neverauskas continued in the sixth inning on Saturday.

Searching for effective offspeed pitches, Neverauskas became dependent upon his fastball and paid for it. The right-hander loaded the bases with two hits and a walk, and Suarez smacked a fastball into left field for a two-run, game-tying single.

"There haven't been sequences that have been really sharp. There's been a pitch here or there," Hurdle said. "We haven't been able to get some traction with him, and that's what happened tonight. ... We've seen better. We haven't seen better lately. That was another hard sixth inning for us."

That inning has been the Pirates' recurring issue, the one question mark amid a fast start to the season. They've allowed 39 runs this season, and 11 of them have come in the sixth. The young Bucs bullpen -- specifically the trio of Neverauskas, Santana and Josh Smoker -- has been called into action often in that frame, too, as the Pirates have only had one starter (Trevor Williams on April 1) complete six innings.

The eighth inning, by comparison, hasn't been much of a problem at all. Kontos is their lone veteran reliever, and he has been excellent since Pittsburgh acquired him last August.

But with the game tied in the eighth on Saturday, the Reds put runners on the corners with a pair of ground-ball singles. Billy Hamilton stole second base, putting two men in scoring position. Suarez came to the plate with two outs, only moments after first baseman Josh Bell robbed Jesse Winker of what would have been the go-ahead single, and launched an 0-1 fastball from Kontos into the left-field seats.

Video: CIN@PIT: Suarez cranks go-ahead three-run jack in 8th

Kontos blamed only himself for his pitch selection. In hindsight, the right-hander would have thrown a cutter or a slider -- anything else from his deep arsenal. But after throwing a first-pitch sinker down in the zone, which Suarez fouled off, Kontos threw another that sailed into Suarez's swing plane for a tie-breaking, three-run homer.

"I kind of just went away from my strengths and second-guessed myself and put a pitch out there that he can handle," Kontos said. "It's unfortunate. I made a mistake here and it cost us a win today, or possibly a win. I've got to go back to pitching to my strengths and doing what I'm capable of doing."

After jumping out to a four-run lead against Reds starter Sal Romano, the Pirates' lineup went quiet. Romano, Kevin Quackenbush and Wandy Peralta retired 16 straight hitters between the third and eighth innings. When asked about Pittsburgh's cold bats, Corey Dickerson, who drove in two runs in the first, wryly brought up the frigid weather.

"I don't know if it got below freezing really quick," he said. "It's one of those nights, started off good and kind of faded. We could've done a better job getting something going, I think."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
First strike: Down by four runs in the third, the Reds started to climb back into the game. Winker worked a one-out walk, one of his four times on base, and took third when Suarez hit a line drive to right field that bounced past Adam Frazier, starting in place of the injured Gregory Polanco, for a double. That put Winker in position to score on Joey Votto's sacrifice fly to right for Cincinnati's first run.

Leave 'em loaded: Kuhl gave up one run in the fifth when Jose Peraza singled, took second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a single by Winker. Kuhl promptly loaded the bases, walking Suarez and giving up a single after a characteristically tough at-bat with Votto. With the bases loaded, two outs and a two-run lead, Kuhl buckled down and rediscovered his offspeed stuff. The right-hander struck out Scooter Gennett on a curveball and got Adam Duvall to chase a slider, pumping his fist in celebration as he walked off the mound.

Video: CIN@PIT: Kuhl K's Duvall with the bases loaded

"The slider kind of came back to me late against Duvall. A couple curveballs to Scooter," Kuhl said. "Being able to use those and have those late in the game was huge."

QUOTABLE
"I just wanted to be short, be quick and hit it hard. It just happened to find Bell's glove -- a really, really good play. ... But Geno picked me up and it was a fun way to win." -- Winker, on Bell's excellent catch and Suarez's game-winning homer

Video: CIN@PIT: Bell gloves down Winker's line drive in 8th

"It's just bad coaching on our part. There was miscommunication. That should never happen. Never happen." -- Hurdle, on Colin Moran getting caught stealing in the ninth with the Pirates down by three runs

WHAT'S NEXT
After tying a career high with nine strikeouts in Pittsburgh's home opener, Jameson Taillon will close out the Pirates' first homestand against the Reds on Sunday afternoon. Taillon allowed two runs on four hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Twins on Monday. First pitch at PNC Park is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. ET.

Watch every out-of-market regular-season game live on MLB.TV.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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