Although no one is saying so, there are signs that Oliver Perez's start this afternoon against Arizona could be his last for the Pirates for quite some time.
For one, general manager Dave Littlefield has acknowledged the team is concerned enough about Perez's poor performance -- 1-5 record, 7.71 ERA in seven starts -- that it will not rule out optioning him to the minors.
For another, manager Jim Tracy has made clear his growing impatience with Perez.
Yesterday, though, all concerned seemed focused on hoping Perez will make progress today rather than issuing ultimatums.
Asked if today represents a must-win for Perez, Tracy replied: "I'm not going to sit here and make comments like that. What Oliver needs to know is that we're all behind him. To sit here and read that his neck's in a noose ... he needs to know that his manager, coaches and teammates are behind him."
Before Perez's previous start -- four runs in four innings of a 6-0 loss Friday at Washington -- pitching coach Jim Colborn expressed uncertainty about how Perez might fare because of a poor side session that preceded it. Yesterday, Tracy offered unsolicited praise for Perez's side session Monday.
"It was very good. And I hope he can carry it into the game."
A Major League Baseball source yesterday confirmed the Pirates' stance that Perez has options and could be demoted without clearing waivers.
If that were to happen, it would mark Perez's first time in the minors since 2003 while with San Diego, aside from a three-start rehabilitation stint last season with Class AAA Indianapolis.
It also, most assuredly, would represent a crushing blow to Perez, but he was stressing nothing but the positive yesterday.
"I'm just going out there to win the game," he said. "I want to help the team, get six or seven innings and help the bullpen."
Asked if he found the possibility of being demoted troubling, he answered: "That's part of baseball. When you don't play good, people will talk about releasing you or sending you down or whatever. I just have to focus to get better, so maybe that's good for me."
Before his previous start, Perez reverted to his 2004 delivery -- on his own -- in an attempt to rediscover his excellent form that year, and he will use it again today.
"Easy mechanics, throw hard," he said of his approach.
Ready to promote?
Should Perez go down, the prime candidate to replace him will be another left-hander, Tom Gorzelanny, the Pirates' top pitching prospect.
Although Gorzelanny is only 1-2 in seven starts, he has a 3.68 ERA, 41 strikeouts and 15 walks in 36 2/3 innings for Indianapolis. In his most recent start Monday, he took a no-hitter into the sixth against a Charlotte team that had won 11 games in a row, struck out nine and ended up with a no-decision.
Also strong has been veteran right-hander Brandon Duckworth, who nearly made the roster out of spring training. He is 4-2 with a 2.48 ERA.
More impressive than any of Indianapolis' starters has been right-handed reliever Scott Strickland, who has yet to allow an earned run in 20 2/3 innings. To boot, he has struck out 23 while walking five, and opponents are batting .157 off him.
Strickland, 29, had been a fixture in the majors before reconstructive elbow surgery in 2003.
Veteran reliever Giovanni Carrara sought and received his release from Indianapolis after posting a 3.00 ERA in nine appearances. Carrara, 37, had spent most of the past five seasons in the majors and had been expected to make the Pirates' roster after signing as a minor-league free agent.
Center fielder Chris Duffy has a blister on his right hand, which has been bandaged the past two days. He has not started since Thursday, but Tracy shrugged off the hand's health as "nothing."
Tracy seemed to downgrade the status of shortstop Jack Wilson and catcher Ryan Doumit, each out with strained hamstrings, when he said "maybe" they would be ready to start by tomorrow, the original target date for each.
INDIANAPOLIS (18-14) won at Charlotte, 3-2. RHP Nerio Rodriguez (1-1, 3.54) allowed two runs and four hits in seven innings. He struck out four and walked three. LHP C.J. Nitkowski (1.17) pitched two scoreless innings for his second save. CF Rajai Davis (.243) went 3 for 5 with his second home run and three RBIs.
ALTOONA (20-13) won at Harrisburg, 6-1. RHP Matt Peterson (3-2, 3.86) allowed one run in six innings. CF Vic Buttler (.282) went 3 for 5 with a triple.
LYNCHBURG (15-16) lost at Wilmington, 7-0. LHP Kyle Bloom (2-2, 3.16) allowed two runs in five innings. CF Pedro Powell (.223) went 1 for 4 and stole his 10th and 11th bases.
HICKORY (12-18) was off.