The Pirates love to give the baseball to Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton. They know they are going to get, in many more games than not, a quality start and a chance to win a ballgame. But Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke are going to have to play big parts if the Pirates are going to outlast the St. Louis Cardinals, who pulled even with them atop the National League Central Division standings with a 7-2 thumping Sunday at PNC Park.
Cole, who has been babied just a bit by management to protect his prized right arm, will start Tuesday night in Milwaukee against the Brewers. Locke, who was supposed to start Sunday but was skipped because of ineffectiveness since the All-Star break, is expected to return to the rotation Saturday night in St. Louis. Cole's and Locke's starts down the stretch will mean just as much as Liriano's, Burnett's and Morton's.
The Pirates have faith in Cole, who has been OK-to-good in most of his 14 starts despite failing to live up to the massive hope that followed him to the big leagues after his call-up in June. General manager Neal Huntington takes some of the blame for Cole's inconsistency. Management mandated he twice take six days off between starts in August to limit his innings. He has pitched 1531/3 innings between the Pirates and Class AAA Indianapolis after pitching just 132 in 2012.
"I thought he was really dominant for four or five starts before we started pulling him back," Huntington said.
Manager Clint Hurdle said he has just as much faith in Locke, who was given a timeout, if you will, to catch his breath and regroup. Asked after the game Sunday if he was concerned about his No. 5 starter -- rookie Kris Johnson started against the Cardinals and was awful -- he said, "I'm really excited to see what happens the next time Jeff Locke has the ball in his hand. We'll know more about that spot after that."
Locke is 1-2 with a 6.18 ERA since the break after making the National League All-Star team with an 8-2 record and 2.15 ERA in the first half. But he has to be better in his start against the Cardinals than Johnson was Sunday. Johnson didn't look anything like the poised pitcher who worked five scoreless innings in his major league debut Aug. 18 against Arizona before giving up two runs in the 16th inning and was the loser. He needed 37 pitches to get through the Cardinals' three-run first inning and put the Pirates in a 5-0 hole before leaving after failing to get an out in the third.
"He didn't come anywhere near having the command that he did against the Diamondbacks," Hurdle said.
The Pirates couldn't start Brandon Cumpton, who made four impressive fill-in starts earlier in the summer, including seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball in a win July 30 against the Cardinals. He pitched Wednesday night for Indianapolis but remains a possibility for that No. 5 slot if Locke slides again.
The Pirates also weren't interested in starting Jeanmar Gomez, who was effective in eight starts in May and June but hasn't pitched more than three innings in any of his 14 appearances since and isn't built up to throw more than 50 pitches. He worked three hitless innings Sunday in relief of Johnson, needing just 29 pitches to do it. Because the rosters expanded Sunday and pitchers Johnson, Kyle Farnsworth and Stolmy Pimentel were available, Hurdle could have started Gomez, rode him for as long as he could and then turned to his well-stocked bullpen.
"We talked about it and I'm sure we'll talk about it again if the situation arises again," Hurdle said. "We love [Gomez] in that [long-relief] role. Truth be told, we'd like to use him deeper in games. That's what we're working toward."
Hurdle has another option if his fifth starter continues to fail him. He could pitch Liriano and/or Burnett down the stretch on three days of rest instead of four days. Hurdle said he isn't opposed to the idea, especially because Liriano didn't join the rotation until May 11 and Burnett missed a month with a calf injury in June and July. Morton didn't join the rotation until June 13 after coming back from Tommy John surgery but isn't much of a candidate for short rest.
"Neither [Liriano or Burnett] is knocking on the door of 190 innings pitched," Hurdle said. "But I would have to talk to the men involved to see how they feel about it."
Locke remains the Pirates' best potential solution to their back-of-the-rotation problem.
Hurdle didn't seem too concerned.
You should have seen him smile when he was asked what it says about these Pirates that their biggest concern at the start of September is their No. 5 starter.
"It says we have a really good team," Hurdle said.
Ron Cook: email@example.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.