Cook: Struggles of Burnett, Liriano paint grim picture for Pirates rotation


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ST. LOUIS — Easy. That precious 82nd win is coming for the Pirates, perhaps as soon as today when they throw their best -- Charlie Morton -- at the St. Louis Cardinals. A playoff spot also is inevitable. The Pirates aren't going to blow that. There will be no collapse this season. Their magic number to clinch a wild-card slot remains at 13 after their 5-0 loss Saturday night to the Cardinals. They will take care of that piece of business.

But a division championship?

The Pirates had better start pitching better.

That might seem like a strange thing to read after a night when the team did nothing at the plate and was shut out for seven innings on two hits by Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.

But it's true.

I'm not talking about Jeff Locke, who made his first start since Aug. 27 and took the loss, which dropped the Pirates half a game behind the Cardinals in the National League Central Division race and left them a mere game ahead of the red-hot Cincinnati Reds. He did about what you would expect a struggling No. 5 starter with control issues to do against a good offensive club. He sidestepped early trouble -- a total of three walks in the first two innings and a leadoff double in the third -- but couldn't avoid it in the fourth when the Cardinals tagged him for two runs after he walked the leadoff man. They added another in the fifth, thanks to a hit batter and a throwing error by shortstop Clint Barmes. That was more than enough support for Wainwright, who bounced back nicely from consecutive awful starts against the Reds.

If that fifth spot in the rotation remains the Pirates' biggest problem, they should cruise into the postseason.

But the team might have greater worries.

The stars of the Pirates rotation -- Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett -- need to start pitching better.

Liriano pitched so spectacularly for so long that there was no way he could keep it up. In 11 of his first 13 starts after joining the rotation May 11, Liriano allowed one or no runs.

Wow.

"Incredible," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

But Liriano's step back to reality has been a bit more significant than the Pirates had hoped. He stumbled badly in a loss at Colorado Aug. 9, giving up 10 runs in 21/3 innings. He gave up four runs in four innings in a loss at San Francisco Aug. 24. He was roughed up for seven more runs in three innings in a loss at Milwaukee Wednesday night. That's three rough starts out of the past six.

Burnett, though not nearly as dominant as Liriano, had many fine moments before he, too, began to struggle. Four of his past six starts haven't been very good, including a lousy three-inning, five-run, six-hit performance in a loss to the Cardinals Friday night.

"A.J., the one number that you go, 'Whoa!,' it's his [7-10] won-loss record," Hurdle said. "But then you look at walks, strikeouts, ERA, hits, WHIP, all those other numbers ...

"Both guys are really solid."

Hurdle understands there might be angst outside the Pirates clubhouse after the team's third loss in a row, two in games started by Liriano or Burnett. "You don't want anyone to be human in September. You want them to be superhuman. You don't want people to be common in September. You want them to be uncommon."

But Hurdle insisted there is no worry inside the clubhouse. Certainly, there were no signs of panic after this latest loss. It's obvious the players like their chances today with Morton. He might not be the Pirates' best pitcher, but he has been the most consistent down the stretch in what has turned into a fabulous division race. He is 4-0 in his past six starts and has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each.

I'm thinking No. 82 gets here by sundown.

The Pirates rotation for what should be a fascinating series in Texas against the Rangers beginning Monday night is Gerrit Cole, Liriano and Burnett. Hurdle said he is excited about his club's possibilities against a team that is battling Oakland for the American League West Division championship. He will give the ball to all three of his pitchers with great confidence, especially Liriano and Burnett.

"It all comes with whatever you want to believe in," Hurdle said. "If you want to have concern, you'll have concern. If you want to be optimistic, you'll be optimistic. Those guys are good pitchers. I believe that we're in a good place when they're on the mound. They've shown resiliency to bounce back after setbacks. They've at least got four more shots in front of them, each one of them. They've taken it to heart every time they haven't been able to do what they're capable of doing on the mound, so I'm looking forward to seeing them pitch again the next time out."

I get Hurdle's point.

But it's still OK to be concerned.

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 September 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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