PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates entered their seven-game homestand hoping to gain ground in the National League Wild Card race against a pair of first-place teams. While Pittsburgh's pitching staff has heated up at an optimal time, the bats have gone cold, and the Bucs were held scoreless in three of
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates entered their seven-game homestand hoping to gain ground in the National League Wild Card race against a pair of first-place teams. While Pittsburgh's pitching staff has heated up at an optimal time, the bats have gone cold, and the Bucs were held scoreless in three of their last five games entering Tuesday.
The offense continued to struggle Tuesday night when Ivan Nova pitched his 12th quality start, but the Pirates were unable to back it up and lost their second straight game to the Braves, 6-1, at PNC Park. The defeat drops them below .500 at 63-64.
Pittsburgh narrowly escaped being shut out for the second straight night and fourth time in six games when Gregory Polanco belted a leadoff home run to right field in the ninth inning. Dating back to the fifth inning of Wednesday's 6-4 loss to the Twins, Pittsburgh has plated just six runs over its last 60 frames.
"It definitely gets tough when a week goes by without swinging the bat the way we know that we can," said Pirates first baseman Josh Bell. "But that's just baseball. We got hot there for a little bit. So, we've just got to flip that switch and get hot again."
It looked as though the Pirates' offense was beginning to turn the corner in the sixth inning. Trailing 2-0, the Pirates worked Braves right-hander Kevin Gausman's pitch count up, forcing him to throw 25 pitches while loading the bases with two outs for Bell. Gausman's 26th pitch of the frame was a first-pitch fastball to Bell that he lined to shortstop Dansby Swanson for an inning-ending forceout at second base.
"It was a really good pitch down and low. It was a strike," Bell said of Gausman's pitch. "But I just kind of ran out of barrel there, and [it] kind of leaked out . Definitely tough to make a first-pitch out like that, but I guess I just got a little bit too aggressive."
Kurt Suzuki drove in a run with a double to left field in the seventh inning, followed by Swanson's second two-run homer of the game to give the Braves a five-run lead. Francisco Cervelli led off the home half of the seventh with a sharp double to left field and advanced to third on Colin Moran's flyout. The Pirates were unable to produce a run out of it, though, as Gausman induced back-to-back outs to keep them off the board.
"We hit some balls hard tonight, we got nothing for it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We had a couple opportunities where one hit can change things around. We're not hitting it."
Nova allowed a pair of runs while striking out four over six innings. He retired the first 10 batters he faced in order before working around back-to-back one-out singles from Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis in the fourth inning. With one on and one out in the fifth inning, Swanson ripped Nova's first-pitch fastball over the left-field fence to put the Braves in front.
Despite the offense reeling, Nova's outing marked the the sixth straight game in which Pittsburgh's starter allowed two runs or fewer. Nova has played a key role in the recent success of the rotation, allowing five earned runs in 18 2/3 innings over three straight quality starts.
"I think the command is starting to get sharper and sharper," Nova said. "I'm being aggressive in the strike zone. [I'm] not getting big eyes. I'm making pitches when I need to. It's been a fun stretch so far."
Since scoring three runs in the fourth inning against the Twins on Aug. 15, the Pirates have been held scoreless in 56 of their last 60 innings.
They didn't score in the final five frames of that game, and they endured back-to-back shutouts at the hands of the Cubs before scoring three runs in one inning on Saturday. They scored one run in both the sixth and 11th innings on Sunday, and one on Polanco's ninth-inning home run on Tuesday.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hech of a play: Adeiny Hechavarria flashed his leather in the fifth inning against Braves rookie Ronald Acuna Jr. With two outs, Acuna mashed a line drive one-hopper at Hechavarria with an exit velocity of 104.9 mph, forcing the the shortstop to drop to one knee and make a slick grab before firing to first to throw Acuna out to end the inning.
HE SAID IT
Can we adjust the lineup and look at some different things? We've talked about it. It's been hard. These guys are battling. The guys are doing different things to try and change up some things. Some guys are swinging more. Some guys are swinging at spin. Swinging at velocity. Coming out early. Not taking so much. We're not getting the results we want. -- Hurdle, on the Pirates' offense
Right-hander Trevor Williams will start for the Pirates as they wrap up a three-game series with the Braves at PNC Park on Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Since giving up five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings on July 6, Williams has allowed just three runs in 36 innings over his last six starts. Right-hander Julio Teheran will start for the Braves.
Mason Wittner is a reporter for MLB.com based in Pittsburgh.