Pirates still standing; future of Burnett unknown

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With a loss by the St. Louis Cardinals last night, the Pirates stand two games out of first place and tied for second with the Cincinnati Reds. All things are possible. That includes first place and third place, as well as second.

It does not include being ousted from the playoffs. The notion spouted by some that the Washington Nationals would overtake the Pirates was never rooted in reality. The Nationals were too far back and not a good enough team to perform the nearly impossible.

Someone yesterday referred to the Pirates as being in a 'meltdown' phase. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempts to portray every defeat as some sort of choke job are not rooted in reality.

Rather than being in a meltdown, the Pirates are performing about as steadily as a team can. They are 33-30 since the All-Star Game. There were 14-14 in August. They are 10-11 in September. What you see, usually is what you get. Expect the Pirates to go anywhere from 2-4 to 4-2 this week. Where that takes them depends on how well Cincinnati and St. Louis play.

The Reds finish their season at home with three against the Mets and three against the Pirates. St. Louis also finishes at home, three with Washington and the with the Cubs.

The positive for the Pirates, who open a three-game series with the Cubs tonight at Wrigley Field, is that their starting rotation has been exceedingly sharp, of late. Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole both are scheduled to pitch twice more this season. Morton was outstanding in his last start, Cole has been outstanding in his past three starts. Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, scheduled for one more start, both were exceptional in their most recent outing.

Of more concern, is the bullpen. After being stellar all season, it has a 4.36 ERA in September.

Although Mark Melancon hasn't pitched as poorly as his recent numbers indicate, he is not the dominant closer/setup man he was for most of the season.

If the closer's role returns to Jason Grilli, that, too, is a concern. There's little to guarantee Grilli has returned to his early-season dominance. His ERA since his return from the disabled list is 6.00. His WHIP is 1.83. He has been scored upon in three of his past four outings. Of greater concern, in the six games he pitched in July before going on the DL, his ERA was 6.35. Going back 10 appearances before his DL stint, his ERA was 6.75.

But over a six-game stretch, all these numbers could mean nothing -- that's both the positive and the negative. Cole or Morton could throw a stinker and Grilli and Melancon might be sensational.

With six games to go, the Pirates have a chance to win the NL Central title. Fans of the team could not have asked for much more than that.

It's never a good idea to take a professional athlete at his word when he says he wants to play in a certain city. It's usually either a PR move or a negotiating ploy. But the notion that A.J. Burnett wants to close out his career with the Pirates has a ring of truth to it.

It might not be fair to say Burnett resurrected his career in Pittsburgh, but you'd have to go back six years to a season when Burnett had a lower ERA than he had in 2012. And this season's ERA is lower still.

Burnett certainly doesn't need the money. He has earned $127.7 million in his MLB career, which dates back to 1999. He seems to enjoy playing for the Pirates and there's no guarantee if he hits free agency that a better team will be interested.

Much will depend on what the Pirates are willing to offer. With Liriano, Cole, Morton, Locke and most likely Wandy Rodriguez returning and with Jameson Taillon and several other promising pitchers in the wings, starters are not a priority.

No doubt, the Pirates would love to have Burnett return. GM Neal Huntington said the team will do ``everything in our power'' to retain Burnett. But considering their historical approach to such matters, it remains to be seen if the Pirates can induce Burnett to spend another season in Pittsburgh.

A final word on the Pirates decision to start Jeff Locke Sunday against Cincinnati. Manager Clint Hurdle has been bashed, trashed and smashed for the decision and that's a bit unfair. Locke might not have been the Pirates only option to start the game but the case could be made he was their best.

He's had a miserable second half, but in his three starts previous to yesterday, his ERA was 3.71. There was reason to believe he could keep the Pirates in the game. He did not, allowing five runs in the first inning.

My choice would have been Jeanmar Gomez, who could have given the team, at best, three or four innings. Turns out, in relief of Locke, he gave up two runs in one inning. Kris Johnson and Brandon Cumpton were the other options. Johnson pitched poorly in his only MLB start -- five runs in two innings. Cumpton, who pitched three scoreless inning of relief yesterday, had not pitched since Aug. 28.

Ironic, that in a season where the team's starting pitching depth was celebrated, Hurdle was reduced to pitching the questionable Locke in such a critical game.


First Published September 23, 2013 12:00 AM


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