PITTSBURGH -- Presented with an opportunity to sweep the Reds and at least hold their ground in the National League Wild Card race, the Pirates left PNC Park empty-handed after a 7-3 series-finale loss on Sunday.
The Bucs went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and whiffed at several chances to score late. They committed two errors and perhaps even more mental mistakes. Billy Hamilton ran all over the bases. Gerrit Cole's baffling winless streak against Cincinnati continued.
"We've played some good Sunday games," manager Clint Hurdle said afterward. "Today wasn't one of them."
Amid the uninspiring performance, the Pirates' best chance came from a typically energetic place: Josh Harrison, back in the leadoff spot. Harrison homered in the sixth inning off Dan Straily and nearly did so again in the seventh, ripping what would have been a game-tying grand slam about five feet left of the left-field foul pole.
Harrison struck out on the next pitch, stranding the bases loaded.
"It's a game of inches -- or feet, you could say," Harrison said. "We had our opportunities."
It appears Harrison will get more opportunities in the leadoff spot, where he spent the entire weekend series. The numbers don't necessarily catch your eye. He went 4-for-12 with two strikeouts and no walks in the series, and he's now batting .269/.298/.382 with four homers, 43 RBIs and 14 steals.
But Hurdle, seeking to inspire a slumping offense, seems prepared to ride out Harrison atop the lineup again.
"For right now, he's given us the spark we were looking for, absolutely. That's why we made the change," Hurdle said. "He's done it in the past. There's some numbers that swing his way when you look at it."
First baseman John Jaso, the Pirates' primary leadoff man at the beginning of the season, is hitting .130/.231/.196 with 14 strikeouts in 46 at-bats since the All-Star break. Beyond Jaso and Harrison, their leadoff options are limited, especially against right-handed pitchers.
Harrison has done the job well in the past. Batting first, he's posted a career .305/.344/.456 line, with most of that success coming in his breakout 2014 campaign.
"I would say that's where I'm most comfortable," Harrison said. "I'm an aggressive hitter, but being up there, it slows me down sometimes."
And that, Hurdle said, is when Harrison is at his best -- when he's managing his at-bats, not falling into "quick-fire mode" and swinging too freely.
Having an effective Harrison atop the order -- and perhaps more important, a revived Andrew McCutchen two spots behind him -- would go a long way toward lifting a Pirates' offense that has scored the fewest runs of any team in the second half.
"I think he understands the role that's needed from him right now," Hurdle said. "We'll see where it takes us, but we're going to leave him right there."