PIT@STL: Hughes escapes bases-loaded jam unscathed

CINCINNATI -- On the disabled list since June 8, retroactive to June 6, with right shoulder inflammation, Pirates reliever Jared Hughes made his fourth rehab appearance on Saturday and allowed one hit and two walks in a scoreless first inning.

The outing, in which Hughes threw just seven of his 18 pitches for strikes, wasn't as sharp as his previous performance on Wednesday, when he allowed just one hit in two innings. However, he's now graduated to the next step in his rehab process.

"He's going to have a day off, and then going back to back is the next challenge for him," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He'll go back to back on [July] 22-23."

Hughes pitched in 15 games for Pittsburgh before the injury, earning two holds and a 1-2 record to go with a 4.96 ERA. The right-hander's immediate future when his rehab assignment is complete is unclear, as Hurdle said it will depend on the club's bullpen needs.

Hurdle putting emphasis on sacrifice flies

LAD@PIT: Walker plates McCutchen to extend Bucs' lead

CINCINNATI -- Trailing by one run heading into the top of the ninth on Saturday, the Pirates had a golden opportunity to tie the game with runners on the corners and no outs against Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. A popout and two strikeouts later, the opportunity was gone and Pittsburgh took its second straight loss coming out of the All-Star break.

Failing to convert such chances isn't a new problem for the Pirates, who entered the series finale at Great American Ball Park having gone 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position in the first two games against Cincinnati. The squandered ninth-inning opportunity also illustrated another similar problem for Pittsburgh -- failing to score runners from third base with less than two outs via a sacrifice fly.

The Pirates' inability to hit a fly ball to drive in a run has been especially alarming as of late, considering their last sac fly came against the Dodgers on June 14, when Neil Walker fouled out to first base and Andrew McCutchen scored. McCutchen is the last Pirate to hit a sac fly to the outfield, as he scored Walker in the first inning of a May 27 game against the Tigers.

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said he's well aware of the problem, and he's made sure his players are, too.

"It's not a stat that I keep track of, but it would probably be one of the longest droughts I've had on a club that I either played or managed or coached," Hurdle said. "We have shared this information with the players, just so they know where we stand in the industry, in the league -- 30th, I think. That's another focus point, that that's the part of our game that we need to find improvement with.

With a total of 12 sacrifice flies on the season entering Sunday, the Pirates did in fact rank last in the Majors. By comparison, the Angels lead all of baseball with 41 sacrifice flies, and the top 21 teams in the category have recorded more than 20.

Hurdle said the opportunities have been there for the Pirates, who batted .276 and drove in 81 runs in 181 plate appearances with a man on third and less than two outs before Sunday. It's converting on those chances that has been the problem, and as a result, the Pirates are trying to take a more basic approach to such situations.

"I've played for managers that wanted you to be instinctive on it," Hurdle said. "If the infield is back, look for a ball down and hit it on the ground. If the infield is in, look for a ball up and just bang it to the outfield. We've tried to simplify everything for our guys. Look for a ball that's up, you can hit it hard, hit it where it's pitched and let the trajectory or lack of trajectory take it where it needs to go. Our guys are aware of it."

Huntington not approaching Deadline with urgency

CINCINNATI -- The 2013 Trade Deadline is a big one for the Pirates, as they try to acquire pieces that could help them to their first winning season in 20 years and their first playoff appearance since 1992.

Bur for any teams that think they can use the Pirates' lack of success in the last two decades against them, Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington has a message: "Don't bother."

"We as a group posture with the best of them, and part of posturing is gamesmanship," Huntington said. "I would say maybe those that don't know me all that well might throw that out there with the hopes that maybe that does have an impact. But those that know I think pretty well know that it won't have an effect."

With the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline closing in, the Pirates have not been playing their best baseball, dropping seven of their last 10 games entering Sunday. The offense, which has been middle of the pack much of the season, has had a particularly tough stretch, scoring three runs or fewer in six of those defeats.

But as Huntington and his staff look to fill their needs, he said it's important to look at the whole body of work -- both as a team and with individual players -- and not be swayed by the hot and cold streaks that are a part of the game.

Along the same lines, Huntington said the organization likes what it already has in place, and various players aren't performing to their career averages. That will hopefully change, he said, and that factors into how decisions are made.

"As we look at our offense, we don't really have a guy that's well above his career norms, [and] we have a few guys that are below," Huntington said. "Does it mean we don't look? No. But does it mean we have a sense of desperation? It absolutely does not mean we have a sense of desperation."

As trade talks increase and the Deadline nears, Huntington said he knows exactly what players he wants, and by most indications the club will pick up a bat if it makes a move. And if the Pirates have to surrender valuable pieces in order to compete for a division title, then so be it.

"We're willing to stretch where it's appropriate, and we recognize we're going to have to give up probably more than we want to," Huntington said. "But that's where we are at this point in time. We just can't be foolish about it."