Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was pleased to see his hitters finally respond after a prolonged slump.
Hurdle’s team might have a difficult time continuing that resurgence in Friday night’s interleague opener against the Detroit Tigers’ Brad Penny.
Before its two games in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh (20-23) scored 15 runs and hit .195 with runners in scoring position during a season-high six-game losing streak. The Pirates broke out of that funk by scoring 10 runs and were 5 for 18 (.278) in the clutch while sweeping the Reds.
The Pirates won three straight one other time this season from May 7-9. To match that streak, they’ll likely have to find a way to get hits off the red-hot Penny (4-3, 4.11 ERA).
The Tigers right-hander is 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA in his three starts this month and scattered five hits over eight innings in Saturday’s 3-0 win against Kansas City.
Penny, in his 12th major league season and second in the AL, is 3-0 with a 2.78 ERA in his last six starts against the Pirates but the most recent one came in an 8-1 win for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008.
Detroit has batted .200 and scored five runs during its losing streak after averaging 6.1 runs and batting .273 over its previous 11 games. With this series at PNC Park, the Tigers will have to try to end those struggles without the benefit of a designated hitter.
Victor Martinez, batting .315, or Alex Avila, hitting .283, will likely have to sit on the bench in each of three games. Normally a DH, Martinez has played just eight games at catcher this season.
Martinez might start at catcher on Friday and face Jeff Karstens (2-2, 3.62), who is winless in his last four starts despite a respectable 3.38 ERA.
The right-hander has been given a combined six runs of support over that stretch. He allowed two runs over five innings Saturday in Milwaukee but got a single run from his teammates in an 8-2 defeat.
Karstens yielded two runs over seven innings to the Tigers on June 13 but did not get a decision in a 4-3 defeat, which gave Detroit a three-game sweep at Comerica Park.
The teams have split their 12 all-time regular season matchups in Pittsburgh.
There's not much question about what part of the Tigers needs shoring up.
Detroit had a nice seven-game winning streak going until Monday against Toronto.
Joaquin Benoit gave up three straight hits and a pair of sacrifice flies as the Blue Jays broke a 1-1 tie and recorded a 4-2 victory.
Then it was on to Boston after a rainout. Daniel Schlereth entered in relief and walked the first batter he faced with two outs in the eighth before giving up a double off the wall that drove in the only run of the game.
The third loss came after solo home runs by Brennan Boesch and Miguel Cabrera created a 3-3 tie in the eighth at Fenway Park. Al Alburquerque, who has had some impressive moments as a rookie but nonetheless had never pitched above Class AA before this year, walked the leadoff man in the ninth and wound up giving up a bases-loaded single to Carl Crawford to end the game.
The bullpen looked to be a Detroit strong point entering the season with the signing of Benoit, who had only allowed nine runs all of last season as Tampa Bay's setup man. The Tigers were hopeful of, but not counting on, the return of late-inning reliever Joel Zumaya.
The organization figured it had a solid bullpen with Jose Valverde closing, Benoit setting him up, and any combination of Zumaya, Ryan Perry and Schlereth working the sixth and seventh.
But Zumaya was scratched right away, pitching in just the first exhibition game. Benoit looked solid as a setup man -- through the first three weeks of April. He imploded in late April, and the other relievers have been inconsistent.
The Tigers don't have any ready solutions in the minors, but that doesn't mean they won't look at one or two if they don't find a quick solution to their late-inning problems.
It's probably too early for a trade because teams aren't ready to give up critical relief help. But that time will come soon, and given general manager Dave Dombrowski's history, it's a good bet he'll make a move in the next six weeks should things continue as they have.
RHP Justin Verlander has turned in three excellent starts in a row. Verlander followed his no-hitter by allowing two hits in eight innings in his next start, then three runs on six hits over eight innings Thursday at Boston. Two solo home runs prevented him from gaining a win, but two Detroit solo shots kept him from walking away with a loss. Verlander was nearly half-and-half mixing fastballs with off-speed pitches through the first five innings, but he went more to his heater after that and ended with nine strikeouts. "I definitely didn't have my best stuff," Verlander said. "The good news is my curveball still was."
LF Andy Dirks has acquitted himself well in his first two major league starts. Dirks singled in his second plate appearance (following a walk) in his opening game and collected his first big-league RBI in his second start. Dirks sliced a low, outside pitch into left with runners on first and third in the second inning. He was sixth in the batting order but has been given a look by manager Jim Leyland in the second spot because of his batting style.
CF Austin Jackson had a pair of singles to keep his hot May going. Jackson is hitting more than .300 for the month and has an 11-game hitting streak going. Jackson struck out once but was chasing high fastballs all night.
RF Brennan Boesch broke an 0-for-15 slump with a leadoff home run in the eighth inning. However, he came up in the ninth with the bases loaded and one out and fanned on three consecutive high, outside fastballs. While the stats say Boesch isn't hitting, he has only occasionally looked overmatched.
RHP Al Alburquerque had to throw more fastballs than he has in quite a while, and that produced mixed results. Alburquerque was the losing pitcher in large part because he walked the leadoff hitter, Boston 3B Kevin Youkilis, on a 3-2 fastball. His slider wasn't quite as sharp as it has been, and once he gave up a single and an intentional walk to load the bases with nobody out in the ninth, he had to stay with his fastball. He couldn't risk throwing a slider that might have gotten away from C Alex Avila and let the winning run stroll home. The game-winning hit came off a belt-high fastball.
LF Ryan Raburn is struggling again, and whether that translates into more playing time for rookie callup OF Andy Dirks is something that will bear watching. Raburn did not play, with Dirks taking over for him, and he will take an .098 May batting average into Friday's game at Pittsburgh. He hit .253 in April but has sunk steadily since. "Right now, he's working under the ball and his swing has been long," manager Jim Leyland said. "If we can get that straightened out, he'll be fine. But that's what he's doing. His swing is too long, and he's working underneath the ball all the time."
Raburn said, "The last two, three weeks have been a struggle. I just have to keep working, keep battling, and I know it'll come around."
RHP Joaquin Benoit is taking corrective steps with pitching coach Rick Knapp in an effort to get his effectiveness back. He's been held out of action since losing Monday's game with Toronto. "We are trying to get him to understand a little bit about what his body is doing and how it's affecting the ball: the stride length, the leg lift, the hand out of his glove," Knapp said. "There are certain check marks that he needs to get back to that were evident last year when he was on a roll. Right now, I don't know if he can rely on his delivery to execute pitches. That's really the thing we're working on."
Benoit has allowed 14 runs (12 earned) his last five innings. He gave up just nine earned runs all of last season with Tampa Bay to earn a $16.5 million deal with Detroit.
"We had him throw some (Tuesday) to get a feel for how his legs are and how his balance is on the pitching rubber," Knapp said. "We tried to get him to feel a little bit about what he's doing with his weight transfer and how all that translates into the release point. I felt good about some of the progress we made. I brought up some things that maybe he hadn't done in a while. He was wide open for suggestions."
By The Numbers:
42—Games from the start of the season in which Detroit has had at least one extra-base hit. A pair of solo home runs kept the streak alive Thursday.
Quote To Note:
"We're just not doing a good enough job of putting the ball in play, getting a base hit when you really need one. We're fighting to get that guy in, we're just not doing it."
—Manager Jim Leyland, on his team's struggles to score runs this week.
RF Magglio Ordonez (right ankle weakness) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to May 11. He might return as soon as he is eligible.
2B Carlos Guillen (left knee microfracture surgery in September 2010) went on the 15-day disabled list March 30. He remained at the team's Florida camp in early April to rehab. By late April, he had begun running. He worked out at Comerica Park in mid-May, taking batting and fielding practice, but then returned to Florida. There is no timetable for his return.
RHP Joel Zumaya (right elbow surgery in July 2010) experienced pain in the elbow during his Feb. 27 spring debut, and he went on the 15-day disabled list March 30. He was transferred to the 60-day DL on April 18. He had exploratory surgery May 10, and he might be out for the season. He will be evaluated sometime in June.