PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' bafflingly poor performance against clubs with losing records has been a topic of conversation around PNC Park lately. General manager Neal Huntington referenced it when discussing the Bucs' relative lack of activity before Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline. Manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged the trend and their need to reverse it.
But the Pirates, hoping to climb back into contention, were blown out by the Reds on Tuesday night, 9-1. It was their seventh loss in eight matchups with Cincinnati this season and their 31st loss in 55 games against below-.500 teams.
That figure has contributed to their own losing record and their diminishing standing in the National League Central. They fell 6 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cubs with Tuesday's defeat, their seventh in their last nine games.
"It's difficult, for sure, knowing that we need to win those games," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "I don't know the answer to it. It seems like we don't play up to par when we play teams like that, then when we do play really good teams, it seems like we play our best baseball."
Hurdle offered a simple solution Tuesday afternoon: The Pirates need to be better. They must pitch more effectively, play cleaner defense and hit up to their ability. None of it happened Tuesday night, however.
Starter Jameson Taillon was hit hard in his second straight uncharacteristically short start, allowing eight runs on 11 hits in 3 2/3 innings. The Bucs made a handful of defensive mistakes. They were limited to just one run by a pitching staff with the Majors' highest ERA.
Taillon has mysteriously struggled lately, posting a 12.18 ERA and 2.24 WHIP in four starts since the All-Star break. He has been particularly ineffective his last two times out, allowing 18 runs on 20 hits in only 6 2/3 innings.
Taillon, who threw a career-high 116 pitches three starts ago, said he feels fine physically. Hurdle said the Pirates will review Taillon's past two outings more closely on Wednesday.
"It's the toughest thing I've experienced in my career," said Taillon, who has displayed remarkable mental toughness by overcoming Tommy John surgery, a hernia operation and a testicular cancer diagnosis the last four years. "Baseball's just a game, but this is our livelihood. Struggling like that at this level is pretty miserable."
The Pirates were not without fault behind Taillon, either. Adam Frazier finished with three of their seven hits on the night, including one of their two extra-base hits.
Defensively, John Jaso couldn't cut off Billy Hamilton's leadoff triple in the first inning. In the third, Scooter Gennett was caught in a rundown but reached second base when nobody covered the bag. Given their unusual infield rotation on the play, Hurdle said the Pirates needed a quicker throw and tag from Frazier at second base and first baseman Josh Bell to avoid exposing the open base.
"We needed to get the quick out there," Hurdle said.
Hours before the game, Hurdle sat in his office and noted the Pirates' upcoming schedule. Tuesday was the first of 13 straight games against sub-.500 competition. They are 27-24 against winning teams this season. What's been the difference?
"That's the tricky question that we're trying to figure out," Mercer said. "The good thing about it is we're going to come back tomorrow and play."