Cook: Starting pitching is dragging down Pirates

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That fabulous comeback Sunday by the Pirates against the Cincinnati Reds? It seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? That's the way it works in baseball. There is no such thing as momentum when you play 162 games. Momentum is only as good as your next night's starting pitcher.

James McDonald was awful again Monday night against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park, so bad that there was a possibility after the game he could have some sort of arm problem.

The Pirates, who trailed, 10-1, after 2 1/2 innings, tried hard to battle back but couldn't dig out of the abyss and lost, 10-6.

The team is lucky to be 6-7 with starting pitching that has been even worse than expected. And it was expected to be pretty bad.

Quality starts are a popular statistic, but they are terribly overrated. A starter can get a quality start if he goes six innings and gives up three earned runs. If he does that in every game, his earned-run average is 4.50. That's mediocre.

Pirates starters have had just three quality starts in 13 games. They are 3-7 with a 5.23 ERA. Their WHIP -- walks and hits per inning pitched -- was 1.40 going into the games Monday, better only than the San Diego Padres in the National League. They are averaging a little less than five innings per start.

"Hiccups off the mound," manager Clint Hurdle called the starters' struggles.

But they are much worse than that.

At this rate, the starters are going to destroy the bullpen. Hurdle had to go to his relievers in the second inning Monday night. McDonald gave up eight runs, eight hits and two walks in 12/3 innings.

Don't be fooled by the fact McDonald was charged with just three earned runs. He did nothing to pick up shortstop Clint Barmes, who had a two-out throwing error in the second inning. The next three hitters went double, single and double before Hurdle finally went out to rescue McDonald, who was booed by the small crowd at the ballpark.

Beyond that, McDonald was lucky he gave up just one run in the first inning. Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter had baserunning blunders that led to outs.

First innings continue to be a nightmare for McDonald. He gave up four runs in the first in his previous start April 9 against Arizona. His first-inning ERA last season was 6.83, thanks, in large part, to the 22 runs, 20 walks and nine home runs he allowed in 29 innings.

Before the game Monday night, Hurdle talked about McDonald facing "consistency challenges and dependability challenges."

McDonald failed miserably against the Cardinals.

"He just couldn't get the ball where he wanted," Hurdle said. "He couldn't repeat it. It was hard for him."

Hurdle refused to "speculate" about any potential arm trouble for McDonald. He and the team will know more today.

But the problems with the starters go much deeper than McDonald.

It didn't help that Wandy Rodriguez had to leave his second start April 8 against Arizona because of hamstring tightness. He hopes to pitch this weekend against the Atlanta Braves but had to miss his start Sunday against the Reds. That forced Hurdle to use nervous rookie Phil Irwin, who, in his big-league debut, dug a 5-0 hole after 4 1/2 innings. Somehow, the Pirates came back to win, 10-7.

Jonathan Sanchez, who is scheduled to pitch tonight against the Cardinals, was below-average in his first start against the Los Angeles Dodgers and really lousy in his second against Arizona. He's 0-2 with a 12.96 ERA.

Jeff Locke was better in his two starts but hardly dominant. He took a loss in Los Angeles after giving up four runs in six innings and got a win Saturday against the Reds when he allowed just one run in five innings despite four walks. The Pirates caught a big break that night when the Reds' best starter -- Johnny Cueto -- had to leave in the fifth inning with what has been diagnosed as a strained back muscle.

Not even A.J. Burnett has been all that hot despite striking out 27 hitters in his 17 innings. He didn't make it out of the sixth in two of his three starts.

It's easy to say Hurdle should be quick to replace McDonald and Sanchez in the rotation, but he doesn't exactly have many options. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington likes to brag about the team's starting pitching depth, but it's hard to see. Injured Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton might be ready to help later this spring, but that doesn't seem like much of a reason to celebrate. Liriano hasn't been very good since 2010, Morton since 2011. Karstens has been good when he's been healthy, but he's hardly ever healthy. And don't even think about franchise phenom Gerrit Cole riding in on a white horse before June. The Pirates aren't going to start his arbitration-eligibility clock under any imaginable circumstances. It's not as if he has earned a promotion. He wasn't very good in his first two starts at Class AAA Indianapolis.

You can complain all you want about Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin and Barmes doing little or nothing at the plate. But if anything is going to doom the team to a long season, it's going to be the starting pitching.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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