PITTSBURGH -- A chance for the Pirates to salvage a series sweep was thwarted largely by an inability to throw strikes on Sunday. And though the club has finished only two cycles through the rotation, this early-season trend should be of concern.
Already leading the Majors in walks issued, the Pirates pushed that total to 46 with seven more in the final game of this four-game series. A number of these free passes stung, as the Rockies took advantage of the bases-on-balls by stealing a 6-5 win in front of 18,043 at PNC Park.
"We've got to do better," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Being concerned about it isn't going to get the job done. Guys have got to throw strikes and get hitters out."
Right away, the free passes were an issue for Pirates starter James McDonald, who needed 38 pitches to get through a tumultuous first inning. Only half of those pitches were strikes. And though the Pirates' bullpen never stirred, it might have, had Hurdle had not been short on available relievers.
McDonald walked three and gave up three hits, including a three-run homer to Jose Lopez, as the Rockies plated four in the frame.
"I asked everybody in the dugout, 'How's the fastball?'" Lopez said. "'Is it moving? Not moving?' Everybody said, 'Straight.' I saw two men on base, so I wanted to swing at the first-pitch fastball."
The two-out homer ensured that the Rockies went deep at least once in all four games.
"I had a talk with myself [after the inning] that I needed to really pick it up and keep the team in the game," McDonald said. "I had to motivate myself to hold that game, keep it close."
Count the personal pep talk as a success. An outing that appeared destined to be brief for McDonald lasted 6 2/3 innings. The Pirates' offense fought back to take the lead during that span, while McDonald scattered just three more hits.
McDonald threw only 65 pitches after the first, giving him a final pitch count of 103. That actually made McDonald, who was on a limited pitch count in his first start after dealing with side injury in the spring, the first Pirates pitcher to reach the 100-pitch mark this year.
"[That's a] huge step forward," Hurdle said. "That was a significant bump up. He did an outstanding job for us today."
McDonald's day ended when he allowed a two-out single in the seventh. With the Pirates ahead, 5-4, Hurdle motioned for reliever Mike Crotta to get the final out.
"It's always a good step when your team is still in the game when you come out," said McDonald, who had thrown 87 pitches in his previous start. "I showed that I'm out there competing. I showed my team that I'm not going to give up. It was big for me to go back out there and hold those guys scoreless."
Crotta couldn't do the same.
He walked the first batter he faced and allowed the tying run to score on a Jason Giambi single. A walk to Troy Tulowitzki loaded the bases.
Though it was evident that Crotta was having trouble commanding his sinker, Hurdle opted to stick with the rookie. He didn't have much of a choice, given that five of his relievers -- Garrett Olson, Chris Resop, Jose Veras, Jeff Karstens and Evan Meek -- were unavailable.
"With what we had available today, he was our most viable option," Hurdle said. "We had talked about if the count had gone to 2-0, I probably would have gone out and got him. But he threw a strike."
Crotta did throw a strike to even the count at 1-1. But three straight balls followed, forcing in the go-ahead run for Colorado.
"I just didn't execute my pitches," Crotta said. "It's tough to get outs when you walk people. If they put it in play, chances are they'll hit it at somebody. When you walk somebody, there is nothing anybody can do to help you."
Daniel McCutchen came in to close the inning, but Colorado's two-run seventh negated the work the Pirates' offense had done to erase the early four-run deficit.
After scoring a run in the second, the Pirates evened the game up with three more in the third. Andrew McCutchen drove home one with a single to left. Lyle Overbay followed with a two-run double.
The lineup seemed poised to tack on more, with Jhoulys Chacin suddenly leaving balls over the plate. Pedro Alvarez walked and Ryan Doumit hit a fastball on the nose. The only problem was, it went straight to second baseman Jonathan Herrera, who had been moved a few steps to his right after Doumit had singled in his first at-bat.
Herrera turned the double play.
"We did have a big inning, but it wasn't as big as it could have been," Overbay said. "Doumit hit that ball hard. You can't do anything about that. We had to get [Chacin] out of the game, and he pitched two more innings than he should have. Those are the things you look back on and say you need to get better at."
The Pirates took advantage of an infield single by McDonald and a throwing error by Chacin to take the lead in the fourth. That was it, though. The club was held hitless the rest of the game.
"We laid it all out there," Hurdle said. "Can we improve on offense? Yes, we can. That double play that they started -- if that ball gets through, maybe it changes the game."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.