On the Pirates: The makeup of the rotation a month from now?

Bill Brink on the Pirates is a weekly look at the team, the issues and the questions

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As manager Clint Hurdle sees it, worrying about the future of the Pirates' rotation is not a productive endeavor.

"We've had different conversations in here where I was getting challenged on all these tough decisions I was going to have to make two weeks ago, and now I really don't have many tough decisions to make," Hurdle said. "Through attrition, through injury, things happen. More often than not, they take care of themselves."

Injuries to James McDonald, Jeanmar Gomez, Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett created opportunity. Gerrit Cole seized his chance Tuesday night with 61/3 innings of solid pitching.

"Cole just pitched, put a foot down," Hurdle said. "Looked pretty good. I think we'll just continue to figure it out as we go, but I don't need to make those decisions now for a group."

Charlie Morton followed Thursday and allowed two earned runs in five innings in his first major league start in more than a year.

"There's room for improvement, but from being out a year, first time back on a major league mound, I think there's some things we can definitely work with," Hurdle said.

The Pirates had to fill another hole Saturday. Now Gomez, Rodriguez, Burnett and McDonald are working their way back at various rates.

"We do giggle when the press says, all these tough decisions we're going to have to make," Hurdle said. "You giggle, because you've been through it before. You know that very rarely the nine guys all pitch well and all push the envelope to that one little pinnacle point where you've got to make four decisions."

Despite the injuries, the Pirates' rotation had a 3.56 ERA prior to the weekend games, the sixth-best mark in the major league. That same unit, however, ranked 27th in innings pitched.

Yes, it sounds easy, but ...

The reason behind Bryan Morris' recent success sounds simple. It is tougher to execute.

"Being able to throw my fastball in the zone has helped me over the past two weeks more than any other thing the whole season," Morris said.

Entering the weekend, Morris had not allowed a run in his previous seven outings. In 12 innings during those outings, he allowed two hits, four walks and struck out seven.

"It was a little bit of a mentality change," Morris said. "I decided that I needed to attack with my fastball and get ahead to make my other pitches better."

Morris' other main weapon is a hard slider. Commanding his fastball takes the pressure off the slider.

"If I go out there and the only thing I have working for me is my slider, I have to be almost perfect with that pitch," he said. "Guys start sitting on it because it's the only thing I'm throwing."

Morris' slider hovers around 90 mph, according to PitchF/X data. He throws it similar to a fastball, without much wrist action, and allows the grip to do the work.

"I want it to be as close to my fastball as possible, and I want it as sharp as possible," Morris said. "I don't want it to be loopy. I don't want it to be a real big break. The harder, the better for me.

"You got to treat it just like your fastball. When I want to throw it for strikes, I tell myself to throw an inside fastball to a righty. When I want to throw it away, I just look out over the plate."

He has a 1.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and had allowed six runs in 262/3 innings going into Friday. "I think it's a validation of what I've done over the past few years," he said.

Sometimes, it's all about eyes and guts

No longer will Hurdle consider the number of pitches his starter has thrown when considering making a change.

Pitch counts do not always reflect the state of the pitcher on the mound, so he is abandoning them as a tool.

"It's going to be about the barrel of the bat on the other team, it's going to be the times men get on base, how they handle the stretch, situations where duress picks up," he said.

He also does not want his starters to let their pitch counts affect the way they pitch.

"I think it doesn't creep into the back of your mind, but you're obviously aware," Jeff Locke said. "You're aware if you're at 89 or 95, they're not going to send you out there two more innings."

For pitchers who need a hard-and-fast number, Hurdle offered another option: "Pitch seven full innings and we'll figure it out after that."

Locke interpreted Hurdle's shift in focus as a move to rely on his eyes rather than the data.

"It is starting to get warmer, it is starting to get into the months of the season where your starters need to get a little deeper," Locke said.

Looking ahead: Reds

The Pirates swept the Cincinnati Reds in the first series of the season between the two teams. The next time around, the Reds shut the Pirates out twice and only a walk-off single in extra innings prevented a sweep.

Round three begins Monday at Great American Ball Park, the first game of a four-game series. The Reds had won four of their past six games entering the weekend and led the Pirates by a half-game in the NL Central.

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