PITTSBURGH — Not long ago, the Pirates probably felt comfortable with their pitching depth. Doubt that’s true now.
For while there has certainly been improvement this season, what happened Wednesday was the latest bit of bad news for the group. Roansy Contreras recorded just one out while giving up seven earned runs during a 9-5 loss to the Athletics at PNC Park.
The outing raised Contreras’ season ERA to 5.19. It also exacerbated some previous control and fastball command issues, with Contreras clearly tentative with his mechanics and either missing the strike zone entirely or finding way too much of it.
It’s a problem the Pirates (32-29) sought to rectify by shifting Contreras to the bullpen; however, Vince Velasquez leaving his return start in Seattle early with right elbow discomfort changed those plans.
Contreras pitched once in relief, then allowed five earned runs over four innings in his last start.
Do the Pirates continue allowing Contreras to make starts when clearly he needs additional work? Though it doesn’t feel like it after dropping two of three to Oakland, they’re still relatively close in the division race.
If Mike Burrows were available, this might’ve been the perfect opportunity for him. But the same as JT Brubaker, they’re both out for the year (and more) because of Tommy John surgery.
Could Quinn Priester get a shot? Maybe. He was really good aside from one start in May but also allowed four runs over five innings on Wednesday. His ERA is 4.63. The only other conceivable option from Triple-A is probably Osvaldo Bido. It’s unlikely that inspires much hope.
While we await news on Velasquez on Friday from director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk — the former’s return certainly isn’t imminent — the Pirates seemingly have more questions than answers in the starting rotation.
Especially when you consider Mitch Keller has allowed 15 earned runs over his past three starts and Johan Oviedo has alternated between really good and really wild.
Oakland’s seven-run first all but sealed this one about a half-hour after it started. This marks just the third series victory this season for the Athletics and snapped a two-game series winning streak for the Pirates.
Aside from strong games turned in by Rodolfo Castro (3 RBIs) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (3 hits), one of the only other redeeming storylines involved Andrew McCutchen’s seventh-inning single, bringing his career hit total to 1,998.
It felt for a brief moment like the Pirates might actually make something of this; however, a sequence in the sixth and seventh innings ensured they would indeed lose.
After Hayes tripled into the North Side Notch — he’s hitting .483 (14 for 29) during a seven-game hitting streak, with a double, two triples, two home runs and seven RBIs — Castro and Josh Palacios struck out, stranding Hayes at third.
In the top of the seventh, Oakland finally got to Luis Ortiz, who wound up working as the bulk guy and navigated a decent amount of traffic in the middle innings.
First baseman Ryan Noda went the other way with a low-and-away four-seamer from Ortiz, tucking it just inside the left-field foul pole for a solo shot to make it 8-3. Left fielder Seth Brown and designated hitter Brent Rooker followed with back-to-back doubles, the second one smoked at 108.2 mph to the Notch.
The Pirates got a run back on a bases-loaded walk in the seventh and another on Bryan Reynolds’ RBI single in the ninth, but that was it.
ON THE MOUND
The problems for Contreras were plenty obvious from the jump. After allowing a walk and a single, designated hitter Brent Rooker lined an up-and-away heater into left-center for a 1-0 Oakland lead.
Second baseman Jace Peterson, who Tuesday night went 5 for 5 with two homers and five RBIs, followed by cracking a two-run double into the right-field corner.
Third baseman Jonah Bride singled on a slider that was actually a touch out of the zone for a 4-0 advantage before center fielder JJ Bleday hammered a middle-middle changeup over a leaping Hayes.
By the time No. 9 hitter Kevin Smith singled, Pirates manager Derek Shelton had seen enough. He pulled Contreras for Rob Zastryzny, who issued a pair of bases-loaded walks.
AT THE PLATE
Castro contributed home run, a double and three RBIs.
Entering the game slugging .651 against lefties (eighth-best in the National League), Castro got a 2-0 fastball from Athletics southpaw Hogan Harris that was up and out over the plate, crushing it 430 feet into the Pittsburgh bullpen for his sixth of the season.
In the fourth, Castro ambushed a first-pitch fastball from Harris and drove it into the left-center gap to bring the Pirates to within four at 7-3.
In addition to his hit, Andrew McCutchen walked twice in the game and seven times in the series. It marked the third consecutive game McCutchen has recorded two-plus walks, the first time a Pirates player has done that since Jordy Mercer on May 2-5, 2017.
McCutchen actually had multiple walks in four straight from Sept. 20-23, 2015.
The Pirates are off on Thursday before starting a three-game series with the Mets over the weekend. Rich Hill gets the ball Friday. The veteran left-hander has a 6.69 career ERA against them.