In what was the biggest series of the season -- until the next one -- the Pirates looked distinctly unlike a contender for anything remotely noteworthy as they lost three games to the St. Louis Cardinals, with the latest misadventure being a 9-2 humiliation.
The Pirates look like they are coming apart -- outscored 26-10 in these three games -- although the days ahead will fully determine that. No question, though, the team looked terrible -- not in the same class with the Cardinals -- in this series.
This most recent performance and their current four-game losing streak will understandably spark talk of a collapse. The talk is fully legitimate based both on the team's well-known history and its recent play. The Pirates are 11-17 since going a season-high 26 games over .500 on Aug. 8.
There's only one place the Pirates can end the talk of collapse: on the field of play.
That said, they remain in excellent position to make the post-season for the first time since 1992 and are certainly still within distance of the Cardinals. Based on this series, though, catching the Cardinals will not be easy. And based on their recent play, the post-season does not look promising.
The loss dropped the Pirates to 1 1/2 games behind St. Louis and now they must be as much concerned with third-place Cincinnati, percentage points behind them, as they are with the Cardinals. The Reds are white-hot, having taken three of four from St. Louis and three straight from Los Angeles.
The Pirates pitching has fallen off a ledge in recent weeks and yesterday it was Charlie Morton's turn to pitch well below his previous efforts. Morton, who had been the team's best starter for the past month, left with two out the second inning with a foot injury. But without the injury, he was in danger of being removed from the game. He gave up six hits and two walks and was charged with five earned runs.
Which means Morton has gave up as many runs in 1 2/3 innings as he did in his previous 27 1/3 innings (four starts).
The Pirates get no respite. They begin a three-game series with the Texas Rangers, who are in hot pursuit of the Oakland Athletics in the American League West, tonight in Arlington. The Rangers also are slumping and had lost five of their past seven, including a 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels yesterday.
Gerrit Cole pitches tonight against Yu Darvish, a contender for the American League Cy Young Award, but who has not pitched well recently. In his past four starts, Darvish has a 4.50 ERA and has allowed 5.19 walks per nine innings. The Rangers have all four of those games.
Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett pitch the second and third games of the series and at one time, as recently as a few weeks ago, that would have been a major plus for the Pirates. But both have been highly inconsistent in the past month, authoring superb performances one start and absolutely awful ones the next.
The hitting, obviously, needs to step up in a bigger way. The late August acquisitions, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, have done their share, although not in this series, but overall the offense has not answered the challenge.
If all of that were not enough, it seemed like manager Clint Hurdle was asleep at the switch yesterday.
Rookie Stolmy Pimentel, who got the final out in the second inning in relief of Morton, was scheduled to bat in the third with Jordy Mercer on second and one out. With a deep bullpen and bench due to the Sept. 1 roster expansion, the obvious move was to bat for Pimentel in an attempt to at least slightly cut into the five-run St. Louis lead. But Pimentel batted and grounded out. Neil Walker struck out to end the mini-threat.
Although it would not have made a difference in the outcome of the game, Hurdle was managing like it was mid-season and he had a 25-man roster and he had to be concerned about saving his bullpen. It's late in the season and he has a deep roster that easily enabled him to make the move. He had a plethora of relievers who could have taken over for Pimentel.
It was almost as though Hurdle was more interested in seeing how MLB-worthy Pimentel was than in winning the game.
Like his team, it looks like Hurdle is in a slump.