ARLINGTON, Texas -- A recent rough stretch that pushed the Pirates out of first place was among the roughest series of games they have played all season, manager Clint Hurdle said Monday.
Entering their three-game series against the Texas Rangers, the Pirates had lost four consecutive games by an average of 5.5 runs.
"We just had a real rough weekend in St. Louis," Hurdle said.
"It's the first time that I can think of this entire year where we just pretty much had it handed to us for three games. We've lost some games, and we had some stretches. We got beat in Colorado, but nothing like that.
Pirates vs. Rangers, 8:05 p.m., Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Arlington, Texas.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).
- Probable starters:
LHP Francisco Liriano (15-7, 2.98) vs. LHP Martin Perez (9-3, 3.41).
- Key Matchup:
vs. Elvis Andrus, a right-handed hitter who is 0 for 11 with two walks and a strikeout in his career against Liriano.
- Hidden stat:
Liriano has allowed four earned runs or more in six starts this year, including seven earned in his most recent outing. In the five previous starts after those outings, he is 4-1 with a 0.98 ERA.
The Pirates lost their series finale Wednesday against the Milwaukee Brewers before getting swept by the now-first place Cardinals. None of those games were competitive.
But reliever Mark Melancon said those losses did little to shake the Pirates' resolve as they gear up for the final three weeks of the season.
"We have to wash it off," Melancon said.
"It would have been nice to get two out of three, or even pick up one."
Spirits were still high in the clubhouse Monday.
"And you know what?" Hurdle said. "Everybody showed up today. And they're ready to go, as bad as it might have felt [Sunday] after the game."
The Pirates entered this series with an eight-game lead over the Washington Nationals for the final National League wild-card spot.
And entering today, the Pirates, Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are all within two games of one another for the division lead.
While Hurdle said there is some comfort in the team's positioning for a wild card, the preseason goal of winning the division remains unchanged.
"This is right now, I would think, one of the closest races I've ever been involved in, with three teams involved with three weeks to go," Hurdle said. "We still have a tremendous opportunity to get something done, based on what we do."
Morton dodges bullet
Pirates starter Charlie Morton, who injured his left foot while attempting to cover home plate Sunday, appears to have avoided a serious setback and could return to the rotation soon. Morton will fly back to Texas and is scheduled to throw a side session today. It is still unclear if he will be able to make his next scheduled start, Friday against the Chicago Cubs.
"The next-man-up mentality has been good," Hurdle said. "If Charlie's not able to make the Friday start, we've got some in-house candidates that can go."
Pirates left-handed starter Wandy Rodriguez (left forearm inflammation) is scheduled to throw 65 to 70 pitches in a simulated game Thursday in Pittsburgh, an indication the Pirates could insert him into the starting rotation if all goes well.
"We'll wait once we pass that marker," Hurdle said.
But by stretching him out to 70 pitches -- about 20 more than the Pirates initially thought -- Rodriguez would be able to pitch enough innings in a single outing to return to the rotation. Rodriguez said recently he is dealing with arthritis-related pain, but doctors have assured him he is not at risk of structural damage if he continues to pitch. He threw a side session Sunday in St. Louis that "went pretty well," Hurdle said.
Managers ... and friends
The trip to Arlington is the Pirates' first since Hurdle joined the team as a manager in 2011. He spent the 2010 season as the Rangers' hitting coach under manager Ron Washington.
"It was one of the most satisfying opportunities I had in my professional career to work with him and work for the Rangers," Hurdle said.
Washington was a minor league coach for Colorado when Hurdle was manager there, and Hurdle said it was a great experience to work under his former protege.
"As soon as we get out of town, I'll wish him well," Hurdle said.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published September 10, 2013 4:15 AM