Ron Cook: Pirates need offensive spark to make push for playoffs

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Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones put his name on it Sunday. Please, no trades! Jones isn't the first in the clubhouse to do it and won't be the last on a team that believes it is every bit as good as its 56-37 record at the All-Star break.

After the Pirates scored fewer than three runs for the 27th time this season in a 4-2 loss to the New York Mets at PNC Park, Jones didn't blink when asked about the trade deadline at the end of the month. "We don't need another bat. We've got the guys here who can get it done. A few of us just need to be a little more consistent and get hot at the right time."

Jones agreed the start of the second half Friday night in Cincinnati definitely is the right time.

Jones has to be one of those guys to step up.

Fans can dream, but it's hard to imagine the Pirates trading for a top-of-the-line hitter. You've heard the names that have been mentioned, right? Giancarlo Stanton and Alex Rios? Don't hold your breath. General manager Neal Huntington ruled nothing out Sunday but talked as if he won't give up a big part of the franchise's future to take a run at a championship this year. "It's my job to make sure this isn't a one-and-done situation."

It's much more likely the Pirates will try to add to their bench. It shouldn't be too hard to find someone better than Brandon Inge, who popped out to right field as a pinch-hitter Sunday in the fifth inning and is hitting .183. Pirates pinch-hitters have been abysmal all season, batting .197 with 16 RBIs in 132 at-bats.

But Inge isn't the primary reason the Pirates are struggling to score runs. He is the 25th man on the roster. Blame some of the regulars and the players who have been regulars. They are the real reason the team is batting .243 and scoring an average of 3.84 runs per game.

Jones is at the top of that list. He's hitting .253 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs after batting .274 with 27 home runs and 86 RBIs in 2012. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) is down a staggering 112 points from a year ago, .721 from .833. He has hit just two home runs in 103 at-bats since smoking one into the Allegheny River June 2 against the Cincinnati Reds.

Second baseman Neil Walker also is on the futility list. His numbers are down, from a .280 average in 2012 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs to .244 with six home runs and 26 RBIs. He is scheduled to be off the disabled list next Monday.

Gaby Sanchez has been a disappointment. He has two hits in 17 at-bats in July and is batting .226. Travis Snider has been bad. He has hit .191 since May 4. Jose Tabata has started 11 consecutive games in right field and hit .333 in that stretch but provides no power. It's still too soon to say he's the answer.

It's easy to beat up players such as Inge and Michael McKenry (0 for 4 Sunday, has a .182 average), but the Pirates' offensive problems go much deeper. The team strikes out too much, 776 times, third-most in the National League. Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez took called third strikes Sunday with runners in scoring position.

Speaking of which ... The Pirates don't hit much with runners in scoring position. They went 1 for 10 Sunday and are hitting .232 in those situations, worst in the league.

It's remarkable that the Pirates have their stunning record. They are 16-27 when they score three or fewer runs, a record that could be much worse if not for their wonderful pitching. They went 8-2 in games when they scored just three runs. That's amazing. They have won four 1-0 games. That's more amazing.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talked last week about having a few underachieving hitters. Surely, he was talking about Jones, Walker, Sanchez and Snider. Think how much better the team will be if two of the five, including Tabata, hit better in the second half. If three do, the team will roll into the playoffs.

"My second half has always been my best half in baseball," Jones said.

That was the case a year ago when Jones hit .279 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs after the All-Star break.

"I feel like I'm right there," Jones said after a 1-for-4 outing against the Mets. "I don't feel bad at the plate. I just haven't hit a hot streak yet where I'm consistently squaring the ball up.

"I've scrounged some hits here and there, but I haven't had games where I've gotten two or three hits and exploded and scored a lot of runs and driven in a bunch. It's been frustrating, but I've got to keep plugging away. I've just got to put some good at-bats together, have a good month and help us win some games."

Now is the right time.

It's definitely the right time.

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Ron Cook: 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 July 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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