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August 16, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Winless in Milwaukee

by Larry Granillo

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On Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates for their 70th win of the season. The game dropped the formerly feisty Pirates to 56-63, thirteen games behind the division-leading Brewers. Charlie Morton, Pittsburgh's biggest success story of the season, started the game on Sunday and seemed to have the win in the bank. After extending his scoreless inning streak to 24 with 7.1 innings of four-hit, no-run ball, Morton left the game with a runner on second, one out, and a one-run lead. After Jose Veras got the second out in the inning, closer Joel Hanrahan came in for the four-out save. Hanrahan struck out Nyjer Morgan to end the eighth, but the ball got away from catcher Michael McKenry, and Morgan streaked to first. Ryan Braun made good on the free opportunity two pitches later, and the game was tied. Milwaukee would go on to win it in the tenth inning on a sacrifice fly from Morgan, wasting the great start from Morton and securing the sweep.

The game also marked Pittsburgh's 34th loss in 36 games at Miller Park, a streak dating back to May 2007. At that time, Jason Bay was hitting cleanup in a lineup that featured Jose Bautista as the starting third baseman and a right-field platoon of Xavier Nady and Ryan Doumit. The Pirates had come into Milwaukee for a four-game series sitting on a 12-14 record. Tom Gorzelanny earned the win in the first game, when Bay, Bautista, and others combined for a four-run seventh-inning en route to a 4-2 victory. The next night, the Brewers pounded Pittsburgh's pitching by scoring one run in four of the first five innings before erupting for six more in the sixth and seventh innings. The 10-0 loss was harsh, but no one knew it meant anything more than that. Milwaukee finished out that early-May series with a convincing 6-3 victory on Saturday and a tight 6-4 victory on Sunday, when Pittsburgh tied it up at four in the seventh before giving it up again in the eighth.

By the time the two teams met again in Milwaukee, the Pirates had proven themselves to be a last-place team, sitting fifteen games under .500. The Brewers, meanwhile, were approaching respectability at 66-67. Pittsburgh's lineup had changed some, with Bautista batting second and Nady cleaning up, but it didn't matter much. In the first game of the series on August 31, Yovani Gallardo kept the Pirates quiet en route to a 3-2 Brewers victory. Pittsburgh took their first lead at Miller Park in five games the next day with a first-inning run, but it was quickly erased when Milwaukee stormed out with eight runs in the second and third. The game ended in a 12-3 laugher, pushing the Brewers above .500. Pittsburgh kept the get-away game close, taking a 2-1 lead in the second and tying it up again at four in the fifth, but the Brewers never stopped scoring as they completed the sweep 7-3.

The 2008 season wasn't much different, even with the change in managers from Jim Tracy to John Russell and strong seasons from Nady and Doumit. The Pirates were still blown out by the Brewers at Miller Park while also finding ways to lose the tight ones. In four of the nine losses in Milwaukee that season, Pittsburgh lost in the Brewers' final at-bat. Twice games were lost in extra innings (including a 12th-inning walkoff single) while two others were lost with walkoff home runs (including a 10th-inning grand slam from Ryan Braun during the last week of the season that kept the team in the playoff hunt). Milwaukee finished the 2008 season at 90-72 with the Wild Card title, only one game ahead of the 89-73 Mets. If Pittsburgh had been able to win even one of those four final-at-bat games—or, for that matter, finish with anything but an 0-9 record in Milwaukee—the Brewers' playoffs-less streak would be approaching 30 years now.

Milwaukee took six more at home from the Pirates in 2009. With an 80-82 record at the end of the season, the Brewers were unable to extend their playoff success into a second year, and the two close games that they eked out from Pittsburgh had no effect on the final standings. The 99-loss Pirates were equally unaffected by their failures in Milwaukee, though they had now run their winless-in-Milwaukee streak to 21. The lineup in loss number 21 was drastically different than that in loss number one, with Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Delwyn Young, and Lastings Milledge all playing in late 2009, but the problems in Milwaukee were as great as ever. Fox broadcaster Mitch Williams called Pittsburgh's streak a "mental issue" this past weekend. I can't speak for Mitch, but I imagine he would have described it the same way after the 21st loss.

In 2010, the Pirates made their first of nine visits to Miller Park in late April. The three-game series began like all the others before it, with the Brewers destroying the Pirates 17-3 after a nine-run eighth inning. The losing streak was now up to 22, and the punchless Pirates had just been handed their hats. If there was a lower point in the recent Pirates/Brewers rivalry, it'd be hard to find. The slate was wiped clean the next night, though, when Milwaukee handed a 3-2 lead to closer and future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman in the ninth inning. Hoffman gave up two home runs, including a grand slam to Ryan Doumit, before the inning was over, and the Brewers lost 7-3. The next night, Milwaukee handed another one-run lead to Hoffman in the ninth before he blew the save again with another home run by Doumit. The Brewers would lose in 14 innings.

At this point, Milwaukee's recent dominance over Pittsburgh seemed all but over. The Pirates had just managed a winning streak on back-to-back, soul-crushing home runs off of Trevor Hoffman. Any good color man would tell you the mental issues were gone for good. Except, of course, that the losing continued. In the July series, Milwaukee earned two of their three victories by scoring runs in each of the eighth, ninth, and tenth innings. The August series had only one such close Milwaukee victory (an 11th-inning, come-from-behind affair), but that mattered little in the final accounting. By the end of the 2010 season, the Pirates had managed only three victories at Miller Park in their last four years.

The losing streak continues. Many people seem to agree with Williams that the streak is a mental issue. Players say they go into Miller Park "wondering how they will manage to lose this game instead of how they will manage to win it.” That's hardly fair, though, considering that only a single Pirate who played in that May 4, 2007, game is still on the team (starter Paul Maholm). A personal losing streak of, say, nine games might weigh on some of the players, but it's absurd to think that Pedro Alvarez, for example, worries about a game Jose Bautista lost over four years ago.

Pittsburgh will close out the season with three more games in Milwaukee. The Brewers currently hold a five game lead in the division, but that won't necessarily be the case in six weeks. There's a real chance that Pittsburgh's ability to defeat this streak could once again change the National League playoffs picture. It's yet another intriguing-but-(likely)-disappointing subplot to this Pittsburgh Pirates’ season.

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