Jason Schmidt struggled early then settled down as Pittsburgh beat the Tribe again, 6-4.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- In a showdown of "once and future kings" of their respective pitching staffs, the Pirates' Jason Schmidt labored mightily before narrowly outdueling the Indians' Jaret Wright.
The Bucs' 28-year-old right-hander needed 36 pitches just to get out of a three-run first inning before shutting out the Indians over the next five innings in the Pirates' 6-4 win Saturday at PNC Park.
After an 18-41 start, the Pirates have won four of six games, including two straight over the struggling Tribe.
"We had some great defense tonight that really helped bail me out," said Schmidt (3-2). "We swung the bats well -- maybe we're starting to turn things around."
Upset skipper: After a 7-3 road trip, the Indians have lost six of eight interleague games and manager Charlie Manuel is concerned.
"We're in one of those funks right now," Manuel said. "We had the lead, but we couldn't add to it. We're not getting two-out hits and we're not driving in runs."
Playing in a National League park without the designated hitter, Manuel said he had no choice but to pull Wright in the top of the sixth inning for pinch-hitter Marty Cordova.
"Jaret Wright had good stuff tonight, but once we fell behind, I felt we had to try and get ahead," Manuel said.
Suffered injuries: Schmidt, who came from Atlanta in 1996 in the Denny Neagle deal, has been considered the team's ace prospect since the day he arrived in Pittsburgh.
But he's been limited to seven starts this season after suffering an abdominal strain after recovering from last August's surgery on his pitching shoulder.
After lead-off batter Kenny Lofton looked at strike three, Omar Vizquel worked Schmidt for a nine-pitch at-bat before doubling to right field. On the seventh pitch he faced, Roberto Alomar singled for a 1-0 lead.
And on his eighth pitch, Juan Gonzalez homered to left-center field for the Indians' quick 3-0 lead.
Good start: Wright, the 25-year-old who also underwent torn labrum surgery a year ago, retired the first six batters he faced in his sixth start of the season.
After beating the New York Yankees twice in the 1997 American League Division Series, Wright's future stardom seemed assured. But a few too many hit-batsmen in 1998 and 1999 plus last year's injury sidelined his journey to ace status.
In the third inning, back-to-back doubles by Kevin Young and Pat Meares produced the Pirates' first run. Meares took third on Schmidt's sacrifice and scored on Jack Wilson's two-out single to slice the Tribe's lead to 3-2.
"I felt like I had pretty good stuff," Wright said. "I just made a couple of mistakes that they took advantage of, but the arm felt pretty good. The ball is really not bouncing my way right now."
Wright said he tried to throw the pitch to Wilson "up and in, but I pulled it a little bit and it cost me."
After being fooled by a curveball, Wilson said, "I guessed fastball and I got it right."
Ahead to stay: In the fifth inning, Jason Kendall's bases-loaded single with two outs in the fifth inning scored Young and Meares to put the Bucs ahead, 4-3.
"I've been struggling and I know I've let the team down, so it's nice to do something like that," said Kendall, whose two hits raised his batting average four points to .256.
Manuel said, "Kendall's hit that bounced over Fryman's head was a big play."
Wright threw 79 pitches in his five innings, surrendering four runs on five hits and whiffing five batters.
Schmidt made 115 tosses over six innings, giving up three runs while scattering nine hits and striking out eight.
Schmidt was in danger in the third inning, but Bucs left fielder Derek Bell ended the inning by gunning down Juan Gonzalez trying to take third base on Jim Thome's opposite-field single.
Lost chances: The Indians failed to capitalize on having runners at second and third with one out in the fifth inning when Schmidt struck out Wright and Lofton.
"I'm not worried about our hitting," Manuel said. "We're not flat and we're definitely not tired.
"My biggest concern right now is starting pitching. It needs to be more consistent -- I like to see out starters go through at least six innings."
Manuel also said he'd like to see "Kenny Lofton get going."
Tribe reliever Jake Westbrook retired the six batters he faced in the sixth and seventh innings, but was chased in the eighth when Wilson and Kendall hit back-to-back singles.
Wilson scored the Bucs' fifth run on Brian Giles' sacrifice fly off Ricardo Rincon.
After Kendall was caught in a rundown trying to steal third base, Pirates rookie pinch-hitter Craig Wilson connected for his fourth homer on Steve Karsay's next pitch.
After Lofton and Vizquel singled, the Tribe brought the tying run to the plate twice in the ninth inning against Bucs closer Mike Williams.
Williams recovered to retire Alomar on a ground out and Gonzalez on a popout to shortstop Jack Wilson for his 13th save.