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08/09/09 6:03 PM ET

Finale slips away in hands of bullpen

Pirates lose eighth straight as Duke's strong effort spoiled

PITTSBURGH -- Sunday's Pirates game spun out of control in the eighth in much the same way the entire week unraveled.

With the Pirates mired in a losing streak that reached eight after Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park, those candid words from Paul Maholm two days earlier continued to sum up the team's most trying stretch of the season: "It's almost like we're standing around, waiting for something bad to happen."

Sunday's late-inning meltdown was a snapshot of just that.

The Pirates finally got a strong starting pitching performance and early offensive production, albeit there were other opportunities left unpegged. But with a two-run homer from Steve Pearce and an RBI single by Delwyn Young, the Pirates handed starter Zach Duke a three-run lead.

Inning by inning, though, all slowly unraveled. St. Louis used an error by Duke on a pickoff attempt to score in the fourth. In the seventh, Pearce's two-base throwing error put Matt Holliday on third instead of the bench. Holliday then scored on a one-out single.

"It's just failure to execute," Pearce said. "We have been in every game until about the seventh. It's just keeps happening all week."

There would be additional lack of execution soon after, this coming by the offense in the bottom half of the inning, with Pittsburgh's lead already shaved to one. Catcher Jason Jaramillo was asked to bunt after Ramon Vazquez led off the inning with a double. He was unsuccessful in his first attempt.

Jaramillo then just tried to advance Vazquez with a ground ball to the right side. However, he pushed a ground ball back at the pitcher and Vazquez was easily thrown out. Another fundamental error. Another opportunity squandered.

"We're making more mistakes -- there's no question about it," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Mistakes come with young players. It's happening at the center stage, and that's a tough thing to have going."

"We've got a lot of work to do as a staff to make sure we keep them focused and try to turn the page the next day," manager John Russell added. "It's not just one guy. It seems to have hit everybody, even our closer today."

That would come in the eighth, which began with Duke returning, his pitch count at just 90. He gave up a leadoff hit and with one out was removed from the start.

"He gutted it out to go out there for the last inning," Russell said, explaining his decision to pull Duke. "Zach did a great job and I definitely felt bringing in our closer was the right move."

Duke, making his second attempt at winning his 10th game of the year, felt he could have offered more.

"I felt good, honestly," Duke said. "I felt like I was still locating pretty well. I felt like maybe I had a couple more hitters in me, but it's not my call."

Handing the ball over to Matt Capps seemed like the safest of moves for Russell, who had watched every other member of his bullpen be battered around this week. Capps, contrastingly, had been dominant. In four shutout innings this homestand, he had struck out eight.

Skip Schumaker came up as a pinch-hitter, and with an 0-1 count, he deposited Capps' inside fastball over the right-field wall for a two-run homer.

"It was a bad plan," said Capps, who fell to 2-7 with the loss. "I executed the pitch where I wanted it to go, but it wasn't the right plan.

Russell elaborated.

"Late in the game, you don't want to try and come in on somebody," Russell said. "You're going against the baseball rule right there pitching him in late. He paid for it."

Trailing now by one, Capps rebounded to get a called first strike on Albert Pujols. His next pitch, a 95-mph fastball, hit Pujols in the ribs. Home-plate umpire Mike Estabrook immediately ejected Capps, claiming the plunking was retribution for the Schumaker's home run. Capps bent down in dismay before walking off the field. Russell briefly argued.

Was it intentional?

"It's Albert Pujols," Capps answered. "He's the classiest guy in baseball. He's not somebody that you're intentionally going to hit, especially not in that situation. Yeah, I understand that I just gave up the homer, but I had him 0-1, tried to go in and it got away."

Pujols saw the situation similarly: "I don't think he did it on purpose," he said.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, however, had a different opinion.

"I think it was an intentional hit and there is no doubt in my mind it came from the bench, and I really believe it didn't come from the manager," La Russa said. "Don't ask me to expound on that."

Jesse Chavez came in to relieve Capps and allowed Pujols and two more runners to score in what became a five-run inning. With those runs, the bullpen finished off a homestand with 27 earned runs allowed and 19 walks in 33 innings.

"The bullpen just needs to relax a little bit," Russell said.

"It's tough to battle like we are and then see it kind of fall out of our hands like it has," Duke said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."

Especially for the left-hander, who has suffered from minimal run support or bullpen struggles all year.

"It just kind of seems like that's the story of my year so far," Duke said. "Obviously, I can only control so much."

With the loss, the Pirates finished the 10-game homestand with just two wins.

"[There have been] a lot of new faces and a lot of change," Capps said. "But it doesn't matter. We had an opportunity to win tonight and I took that opportunity away from us."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.