A seven-game road trip that ended with being swept by the New York Mets turned the Pittsburgh Pirates upside down, as their strengths became weaknesses and they spiraled after a strong start.

It’s bad enough that the Pirates (11-8) have lost six of their past eight games, but the fashion of those defeats has been almost unfathomable.

They got strong starts from a rotation that was supposed to be a weak link and blown leads by a bullpen that was expected to be one of baseball’s best.

They hit three home runs, including a grand slam and a career milestone blast, in one game Sunday at Philadelphia then managed only one extra-base hit over the next three in Queens.

Two players whose paltry plate performances dictated a day off was necessary were forced to play because of late scratches to the lineup, which prompted both to break out of batting slumps.

A bizarro world, indeed, for the Bucs.

Pirates closer David Bednar exits the game after giving up the lead during the ninth inning against the Tigers on April 9.

1. Bullpen blues: Pirates relievers allowed 13 earned runs on 11 hits and seven walks with 11 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings against the Mets, blowing leads in all three games.

Two of the biggest culprits were back-end specialists Aroldis Chapman and David Bednar, who have nine All-Star appearances between them.

Chapman gave up three runs in in one-third of an inning before getting ejected in the seventh inning of Monday’s 6-3 loss. Luis Ortiz gave up three runs in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss. And Bednar gave up three runs in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s 9-1 loss.

Booed after blowing a save opportunity against Detroit on April 9, Bednar bounced back with a 1-2-3 ninth Friday at Philadelphia for a save. He hadn’t pitched since then, so Pirates manager Derek Shelton used him in a rare non-save situation against the Mets.

“The fastball was coming out good,” Shelton said. “It’s one of those things where he hadn’t pitched in four days. Sometimes, pitching in those situations … he’ll be fine.”

Chapman’s command issues are more concerning.

In four innings through his first seven appearances, the lefty didn’t allow a run or a hit while striking out nine against three walks and holding hitters to a .167 batting average.

In his past two outings, Chapman gave up four runs (three earned) on two hits with more walks (three) than strikeouts (two), as opponents batted .400 with a 1.225 OPS against him.

Christopher Horner | TribLive
Pirates pitcher Quinn Priester throws during a workout on Feb. 16.

2. Taking turns: Losing Marco Gonzales (right forearm tightness) to the 15-day injured list is a blow to the starting rotation, given that the veteran lefty had a 2.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and .234 batting average against in 17 innings over his first three starts.

In the interim, the Pirates recalled righty reliever Ryder Ryan. But they optioned lefty Jose Hernandez to Triple-A Indianapolis after Wednesday’s game and will make a corresponding move Friday before the Boston Red Sox visit to begin a seven-game homestand.


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If the Pirates promote a starting pitcher, the most likely candidates are righty Quinn Priester (1-1, 3.95 ERA) or lefty Eric Lauer (1-0, 3.21). Priester has 20 strikeouts against five walks without allowing a home run in 13 2/3 innings, while Lauer has 14 strikeouts and seven walks and one homer in 14 innings.

The difference is Lauer would have to be added to the 40-man roster.

Christopher Horner | TribLive
Pirates designated hitter Andrew McCutchen watches his double during the fifth inning against the Tigers on April 8.

3. Knock on wood: The Pirates left their power in Philly, where Oneil Cruz hit a two-run home run, Jack Suwinski a grand slam, Joey Bart a solo shot and Andrew McCutchen his career 300th.

Since then, the only extra-base hit for the Pirates was a double by Alika Williams in the fifth inning Tuesday.

The Pirates scored only five runs in three games, batting .146 (13 for 89) while having more than twice as many strikeouts (30) as walks (14) and going 4 for 18 with runners in scoring position.

“I think we’ve got to be more aggressive,” Shelton said. “We’re taking too many balls in the zone for strikes. When you have some young hitters, then get into the fact that they’re getting pitched to a little bit, their nature is to get the perfect pitch. We don’t have to get the perfect pitch. … We’ve got to get back to what we were doing early in the year, just moving the ball forward.”

Christopher Horner | TribLive
Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz bats against the Orioles on April 7.

4. Slump buster: With Cruz mired in a miserable slump at the plate, Shelton planned to give him Tuesday off. Then Ke’Bryan Hayes’ back locked up, forcing the Pirates to play Cruz at shortstop, move Alika Williams to second base and Jared Triolo to third.

Cruz went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, running his total to nine strikeouts in 13 at bats over a three-game stretch. But Cruz went 2 for 4 on Wednesday, making hard contact in his first three at-bats.

The Pirates got a scare when Cruz tumbled in the first inning after he was tagged out by second baseman Jeff McNeil, favoring the left ankle that was fractured last season and required surgery.

Then, with runners on first and second in the third inning, Cruz smoked a Luis Severino changeup at an 111.7-mph exit velocity that McNeil knocked down to rob him of a hit and turn two.

“He’s grinding,” Shelton said of Cruz. “I give him credit. He’s a young kid that rolled his ankle pretty good the other day on the foot that he had the issues with last year. I think you can visibly tell. He had better swings today – obviously better swings – but he wasn’t moving great so I give him some credit for getting out there and going through it because we were a little beat up.”

Christopher Horner | TribLive
Pirates catcher Henry Davis watches his sacrifice fly to drive in a run against the Orioles on April 7.

5. Banged up: Catcher Henry Davis also was scheduled for an off day but Bart was a late scratch, one that required a post-game explanation.

“This is very strange,” Shelton said. “He got hit in the head the other day catching in the bullpen from a home run during BP. We thought he was fine. He came in today and felt fine, then as we got closer to game time, he didn’t feel as well. I just pulled him out of abundance of caution just because of the fact that he didn’t feel very well.”

Concentrating on catching has hurt Davis at the plate so far this season, as he batted .133 through his first nine games. Davis has hits in four of his past seven games, however, to boost his batting average by 40 points.

Pirates play-by-play man Greg Brown wondered aloud during Wednesday’s broadcast who would be the emergency catcher in the event something happened to Davis.

The Pirates dealt with that scenario at Cincinnati in 2022, when backup Andrew Knapp was ejected for arguing calls from the dugout and Roberto Perez injured his hamstring. The Pirates were forced to use utility player Josh VanMeter in the eighth inning.

The best guess here for the emergency catcher if something happened to Davis and Bart was unavailable is Connor Joe, who played the position in both the Cape Cod League and at the University of San Diego. Of course, that was a decade ago.

Kevin Gorman is a TribLive reporter covering the Pirates. A Baldwin native and Penn State graduate, he joined the Trib in 1999 and has covered high school sports, Pitt football and basketball and was a sports columnist for 10 years. He can be reached at kgorman@triblive.com.