SAN DIEGO -- Pittsburgh just can't figure out those pesky Padres.
Asked before the game why his squad struggled against San Diego, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he didn't know. But he did add that first-inning runs were a big problem recently.
That statement proved prescient, as first-frame tallies doomed the Pirates again on Wednesday. Starter James McDonald walked the first three men he faced to set up a ringing two-run double from Carlos Quentin and a sacrifice fly from Mark Kotsay that put his team behind for good in a 4-2 loss.
In the six games between the Bucs and Padres this season, San Diego has scored 13 first-inning runs, and at least one in every game. Those runs were crucial, as the Padres scored 29 total runs in those six games, and outscored the Pirates by just six runs overall.
"Again, we dug ourselves a hole in the first," Hurdle said. "[McDonald] just couldn't sync it up. The rhythm, the tempo, the command, I mean he had seven three-ball counts while he was out there. Five walks, 30 pitches in the first inning -- that was a struggle."
"First inning, I was out of rhythm," McDonald said. "Walks -- can't walk guys. This is a team that sees a lot of pitches, they know the strike zone pretty well, so I walked three guys in the first and that one inning initially was the big inning for them."
McDonald did settle in after that first frame, giving up just one more run in five total innings of work, despite allowing baserunners in every inning.
"You look at the big picture, as off as his command was, as many pitches as he had to throw to pitch five innings, he leaves giving up four runs," Hurdle said. "When he throws strikes, it's hard to hit. It's flat-out hard to hit. The batting average against, even when he's not good, doesn't really spike. More often than not, he's involved in the undoing."
Though the Pirates' bullpen threw three scoreless innings in relief of McDonald, the Bucs could never quite close the gap. Pittsburgh's offensive futility could be traced in large part to Padres' starter Andrew Werner, who held the Pirates to just two runs in six-plus innings to earn the win in his Major League debut.
"[He threw] a whole bunch of ground balls -- unfortunately to the pull side. It's something we really talked long and hard about and one of our plans was to stay up the middle and go to the opposite field," Hurdle said. "We really weren't able to follow through with it."
Pittsburgh did get a run back in the fourth thanks to a Pedro Alvarez two-out RBI single, and cut the deficit to two in the sixth when Gaby Sanchez hit a line-drive homer to deep center field. Alvarez, Sanchez, Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones were responsible for Pittsburgh's entire offensive output with a hit apiece.
Sanchez's blow effectively drove Werner from the game, but the Pirates could not muster another baserunner after his departure. Werner's first win was closed out by rookie Tom Layne's first Major League save.
The win gave San Diego a series sweep and pushed the Pirates' record against the Friars this season to 1-5. The Pirates have lost 18 of the last 21 games between the teams, dating back to 2009.
Despite the sweep, however, the Pirates are 67-57 through 124 games. In 2011, they were 59-65. In other words, Pirates are still well-positioned to complete their first winning season since 1992, as long as they can turn around a recent stretch that has seem them go just 4-10 in their last 14 games.
It shouldn't be too tough. While their next 28 games are all against NL Central opponents, none of their remaining 38 are against those perennial pests, the Padres.
Chelsea Janes is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.