Ron Cook: Injuries create mix of pressure and opportunity for Pirates


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You have to like Clint Hurdle's attitude. "I've heard people say that we have to hold fast, hold on. That's not what we have to do at all. We have to push forward. We're 12 games over .500. We've got to keep pushing."

That's easy for Hurdle to say, but a lot harder for his Pirates to do now that they are without four-fifths of their season-opening rotation, including their top two guys, A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez.

Not that Hurdle wanted to hear that Saturday after the Pirates lost, 5-3, in 11 innings to the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.

"We worked hard in the spring to build up our depth. Next man up. It's not pressure. It's opportunity."

How does Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put it?

The standard is the standard?

"Absolutely," Hurdle said, fairly growling.

Brandon Cumpton became the 11th pitcher to start a game this season for the Pirates Saturday and made his big league debut. On paper, it was a silly mismatch, Cumpton against the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the 2011 National League Cy Young Award winner and, arguably, the best left-hander in baseball. But Cumpton gave the Pirates a chance to win.

"He matched [Kershaw] through five innings," Hurdle said. "It looked like he'd been there before. He hit the glove very well. At the end of the day, he missed some spots in the sixth and got the ball up."

Cumpton struck out the side in the first, struck out two more in the second and pitched three no-hit innings. He must have thought the big leagues were easy. But the Dodgers began to figure him out the second time through their lineup and roughed him up for two runs the third time through in the sixth to take a 3-1 lead. Hurdle got him out after five-plus innings and called his work "a really professional job." But it's hard to say Cumpton deserves another start Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds. Hurdle refused to say that, actually.

The Pirates would love to start Burnett, but he's on the disabled list with what could be a serious right calf injury and figures to miss more than just 15 days. That's his push-off leg and pitchers need their legs to be successful. The injury should give pause to those who are in a hurry to give Burnett a contract extension. He is 36 and could be starting to break down.

Hurdle also would prefer to give the ball to Rodriguez, but he's on the disabled list with forearm tightness. Rodriguez, who left his start against the Atlanta Braves June 5 in the first inning, had hoped to pitch through the pain but had a setback a week ago working out in Chicago.

James McDonald, who opened the season in the rotation before ineffectiveness and a shoulder problem put him on the disabled list, is closest to coming back, but that's hardly encouraging news. McDonald is nothing if not unreliable. Jeanmar Gomez, on the disabled list with forearm tightness, is a bit further from being ready.

Jonathan Sanchez, in the rotation at the start of the season, was so bad he was released.

Jeff Locke has become the Pirates' top starter and has been superb with a 6-1 record and 2.19 ERA. It is not a stretch to say he has done much of the pushing forward for the team.

Francisco Liriano is next in line. He wasn't very good against the San Francisco Giants Wednesday night -- 4 runs, 8 hits and 3 walks in 6 innings -- but got the win when the Pirates scored 12 runs. He has been really good in five of his seven starts.

The injuries put a lot of pressure on former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, both of whom made their season debuts this week.

Wait, correct that ...

"It's not pressure. It's opportunity."

Cole made his major league debut Tuesday night and pitched well in a win against the Giants. He gets the start today against the Dodgers' Zack Greinke, another former Cy Young winner. Morton, fighting back from Tommy John elbow surgery, wasn't as effective Thursday night in a loss to the Giants.

I'd settle for holding fast, but, please, don't mention that to Hurdle.

There's no question Cole and Morton have wonderful opportunities to push the Pirates forward. It's going to be interesting to see if they are up to the challenge.

These Pirates have been a resilient bunch all season. They bounced back from a 1-5 start to go 39-23 in the past 62 games. They survived a team offensive slump in five losses in six games earlier this month to win two out of three against both the Chicago Cubs and Giants. Even Saturday, they improbably fought back to tie the score in the ninth inning on Travis Snider's one-out home run off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.

The Pirates had two chances to win in the 10th and a big opportunity to at least tie the score in the 11th. Third-base coach Nick Leyva held up Russell Martin from trying to score on Neil Walker's double into the right-field corner. Don't you have to be aggressive there with two outs? Don't you have to take a chance and send Martin? Hurdle refused to second-guess. "He's got to make a call a lot quicker than we do," he said of Leyva. Pinch-hitter Michael McKenry then swung at the first pitch and popped out to right field. In the 11th inning, Andrew McCutchen bounced out and Gaby Sanchez flied out with runners on second and third.

Say this for the Pirates:

They believe they are never out of a game.

The team is going to need all of that resolve and more because of the injuries to Burnett and Rodriguez. This is its toughest challenge of the season.

Next man up?

Certainly.

And the next man and the next man and the next man ...

mobilehome - pirates - 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. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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