ATLANTA -- All season, short starts have led to long nights for the Pirates’ embattled bullpen. They seemingly survived the hard part Wednesday, getting the ball to their back-end relievers with a chance to win despite a three-inning outing from top prospect Mitch Keller. But they could not silence the
ATLANTA -- All season, short starts have led to long nights for the Pirates’ embattled bullpen. They seemingly survived the hard part Wednesday, getting the ball to their back-end relievers with a chance to win despite a three-inning outing from top prospect Mitch Keller. But they could not silence the Braves’ powerful lineup all night.
After Josh Bell gave the Pirates a lead in the ninth, Austin Riley sent the game to extra innings shortly before midnight ET with a solo shot off Kyle Crick. The Bucs’ top bullpen arms carried them to that point, making them unavailable as it turned to Thursday morning. In the end, Ozzie Albies finished the Braves’ 8-7 win with a walk-off double off Michael Feliz in the 11th inning.
• Box score
With their sixth straight loss, the Pirates fell to 30-37. They are alone in last place in the National League Central for the first time since the end of play on June 12, 2017.
“All these guys have been playing ball a long time. It’s one of the things you go through to also experience how sweet it is to win and how hard it is to win sometimes,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The fight in this club is something I’m very proud of, and I continue to mention that to them.”
The Pirates were three outs away from more than just a moral victory, though.
Making his first appearance since Thursday, closer Felipe Vazquez worked through the top of Atlanta’s lineup in a scoreless eighth -- the fifth straight zero posted by Pittsburgh’s bullpen. Bell then crushed a solo shot to center off Luke Jackson in the ninth, giving the Bucs their first (and only) lead of the night.
Why not ask Vazquez, the All-Star closer, for three more outs? Hurdle said that wasn’t an option.
“He’s had his own set of struggles for the last month,” Hurdle said. “To put him back out there and complicate things, the collateral damage that comes from that -- he needed to pitch a clean inning tonight and not go back out. So, no.”
Vazquez allowed runs in four of his previous seven appearances, with opponents hitting .313 against him during that stretch. He had locked down a save against Atlanta in his previous outing, however, and he’s recorded only one blown save this season.
With Vazquez off the table, Crick took the mound for the second night in a row. It just so happened that Riley, who hit the only homer Crick has allowed this season, was due to lead off the ninth. Crick threw a pair of borderline pitches that were called balls, and Riley eventually smacked a 3-1 fastball over the center-field wall.
“Sometimes, that’s the way baseball goes. I made some pretty decent pitches early,” Crick said, noting that the at-bat might have played out differently with the count at 2-2 instead of 3-1. “The first pitch was down, but it’s one of those deals where you’ve got to get ahead of those kinds of guys.”
That left the Pirates with three relievers available in extras, all of whom have spent most of the season at Triple-A. Hurdle turned to Feliz, who retired the heart of the Braves’ lineup in order in the 10th before he hit Riley and gave up the game-ending double to Albies in the 11th.
The fact that Feliz was one of the only remaining pitchers is reflective of Pittsburgh’s season-long search for reliable middle-relief arms and the reality of another abbreviated start.
Keller again stumbled through a long first inning, throwing 38 pitches as he allowed three runs, though he experienced a little more bad luck than in the six-run inning that began his Major League career on May 27. He gave up another run in the second and two in the third before he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the fourth.
“You always want to do well. Especially when we don’t win, it sucks,” Keller said. “You always want to win. When I give up six runs, it doesn’t give us a very good chance to win.”
But the Pirates’ problematic bullpen, which has struggled this month, kept them alive. Clay Holmes worked two scoreless innings, Richard Rodriguez pitched a clean sixth and Francisco Liriano was interrupted only by a walk, an error and a 55-minute rain delay in a scoreless seventh.
Meanwhile, the Bucs battled back against one of the NL’s stingiest starters, as Braves righty Mike Soroka gave up a career-high 10 hits and five runs in five innings. Gregory Polanco came off the bench in the sixth to deliver a pinch-hit single and score the tying run on Corey Dickerson’s sacrifice fly to right.
"That’s a tough team. I look at three or four of those guys like they’re going to the Hall of Fame,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “They battle, and they put them where they’re not. It’s just all good at-bats.”
However, the Pirates ended up on the wrong end of a walk-off for the first time this season.
“We fight and we scratch and we clawed again tonight to work our way back in the game,” Hurdle said. “Then, in the end, it’s one run short.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.