By Will Graves
A handful of Pittsburgh Pirates spent the 1-hour, 42-minute delay before Tuesday night’s game against the Oakland Athletics playing a video game where the goal is to keep zombies from taking over the world.
The joystick-mashing time-killer also serves as a “team building” exercise designed to keep the clubhouse loose.
Good idea. At the moment, things are tightening up for one of baseball’s biggest surprises.
Pittsburgh managed just three hits in a 2-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics and has scored only six runs total during a four-game losing streak that has drained some of the momentum out of the team that had the best record in baseball a week ago.
“I just love the fact that this is part of the road you’re on during the season,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s got every opportunity to challenge you but at the same time it’s a chance to make you better tomorrow.”
The Pirates remain comfortably over .500 (53-36) and hot on the heels of first-place St. Louis in the crowded NL Central race. Yet the swoon just before the All-Star break has taken away some of the buzz.
Pedro Alvarez smacked his 23rd homer in the second inning but the Pirates didn’t get a runner to third base the rest of the way, spoiling another solid effort from Gerrit Cole (4-2).
Pittsburgh’s rookie ace-in-training worked seven strong innings, his only mistakes coming on consecutive pitches in the fourth the A’s turned into all the offense they would need.
John Jaso doubled with two outs and Brandon Moss drilled an 88 mph changeup into the seats in right field to give Oakland a 2-1 lead the Pirates didn’t come close to reclaiming.
“Not where I wanted it,” Cole said about one of his few mistakes on an otherwise sterling night.
Cole allowed five hits, walked two and struck out four. He wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the first and needed just 90 pitches to get 21 outs.
“You want the best out of the other team,” Cole said. “Any competitive person would say that. (Dan) Straily threw the ball really well tonight. He gave up two hits, punched out a lot of guys, you’ve got to tip your cap to him.”
Straily (6-2) struck out seven and walked three in 6 1-3 innings for his second straight strong outing. Grant Balfour worked the ninth to remain perfect in 24 save chances this season. The A’s have won 10 of 13.
“He was terrific again,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said about Straily. “He was mixing his pitches well, mixed in some curveballs that he usually doesn’t throw and it kept them off balance.”
Straily pitched seven shutout innings in a win over the Chicago Cubs last week. He backed it up by handcuffing the Pirates, yet his reward is a trip back to Triple-A Sacramento during the All-Star break.
“That’s the life of a fifth starter,” Melvin said. “When you have a fifth starter like that who has performed in the fashion he has, that’s quite a luxury.”
Straily had struggled starting on four days’ rest in the majors, coming in 0-3 with a 7.16 ERA when not given at least five days between starts.
Yet the rookie had no issues dealing with Pittsburgh’s suddenly punchless offense. His lone mistake came in the second when Alvarez drilled an off-speed pitch 448 feet to center. The home run made Alvarez the third player in Pirates history to reach 23 homers before the All-Star break, joining Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell.
In a way, Alvarez is having the type of season the franchise once envisioned for Moss. The first baseman spent parts of three seasons with the Pirates between 2008-10, with Pittsburgh hoping his raw left-handed power would help him pound balls off — or over — the Clemente Wall in right field.
It never really happened. Moss hit all of 13 homers in 195 games for the Pirates but provided a glimpse of what could have been in Pittsburgh in the fourth when Cole wobbled for the briefest of moments.
Moss now has 37 homers in 1 1/2 seasons in Oakland.
“Everywhere I ever saw Brandon, you could see the talent was there,” Melvin said. “The consistent at-bats he’s gotten here helped him and he has run with the opportunity.”
Jose Tabata led off the ninth with a single off Balfour, but Andrew McCutchen and Alvarez struck out before Russell Martin grounded out meekly to first as Balfour extended his club record for consecutive save chances converted to 42, dating to last season.
NOTES: The start of the game was pushed back due to the potential of inclement weather. While lightning flashed several times during the 1:42 delay, it never actually rained. ... Oakland LF Yoenis Cespedes was selected to the American League team for the Home Run Derby next Monday night in New York. Cespedes, who has 15 home runs this season, is the first A’s player to be chosen for the Home Run Derby since Jason Giambi in 2001. ... McCutchen went 0 for 3, ending his 10-game hitting streak. ... The series wraps up Wednesday when Pittsburgh LHP Francisco Liriano (8-3, 2.20 ERA) faces Oakland LHP Tommy Milone (8-7, 4.11). ... Hall of Fame golfer Arnold Palmer, who grew up in Latrobe, about 45 minutes east of Pittsburgh, was in attendance.