Top starting pitchers holding Pirates back

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While a city focuses its eyes on a hockey team four wins away from its sport's greatest prize, the Pirates operate in a comparative anonymity. Although there were 11,761 tickets sold for the game last night against the Milwaukee Brewers, about half that many actually attended.

While the Penguins, a rampaging 12-2 through the first three rounds of the NHL playoffs, seek nothing less than the Stanley Cup, the Pirates' goal is considerably more modest.

Just don't call it .500.

"To me, that's not our goal," said manager John Russell, shortly before the Pirates fell to 21-24 with a 7-2 loss to the Brewers.

"That's not what we're looking for. It's nice to be in a position where we're in the middle of things. It's nice to be in a position where we're playing good baseball. Five hundred is .500. We're looking beyond that. I don't think anyone in this clubhouse is satisfied to be a .500 team."

Although Russell was correct when he said the Pirates were playing good ball -- they had won nine of 13 -- he was overstating his case more than a bit when he called them "in the middle of things." When he made the statement, the Pirates were 61/2 games out of first place and only a game removed from last place.

But he's to be admired for holding his nose at the prospect of .500. No self-respecting manager is going to acknowledge he'd be happy winning as often as he loses. It's right and proper that Russell and his player should have loftier goals. Of course, none of them have been through the 15 consecutive years of losing. For the fans who have lived through those 15 years and through those approximately 2,500 games, they'd settle for .500 in a second.

Can it be done?

Don't be fooled with the Pirates more than weeklong flirtation with .500. It's only May. The Pirates and .500 have some degree of familiarity in the second month of the season.

In 2007, they were 12-12 in early May. In 2005, they 19-21 on May 21 (as well as 30-30 June 11). In 2004, they were 23-22 May 29. In 2002, they were 19-18 May 14.

And we know how all those seasons ended.

Still, there is reason for hope. The Pirates have been one game under .500 four times since May 12, and they've done that while playing without Jack Wilson almost the entire season. The falloff at shortstop, defensively and offensively without Wilson, has been enormous. To Russell's great credit, he never leans on Wilson's absence as an excuse.

Furthermore, the team lost Ryan Doumit, who was batting .350, on May 13. His loss at catcher, while not the same as Wilson's, is stinging. Ronny Paulino offers more experience than Brian Bixler, Wilson's main backup, but Paulino's a distinct falloff from Doumit at the plate and, yes, in the field.

So without the injuries, it's reasonable to believe the Pirates would be at .500 or better. With Wilson due back next week, there's reason to expect the team to get better.

But here's what's going to wreck the Pirates. Here's why this team is going to have monumental difficulty reaching .500.

Their starting pitching, the most important part of any team, is the worst in the National League -- by far.

That continued last night as Paul Maholm, whose record dropped to 2-5, gave up four runs -- the final two coming on a home run by Mike Cameron -- in 6 1/3 innings. That boosted Maholm's earned run average to 5.03. That's not very good, but it's the best of the Pirates' supposed big three of Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Maholm.

Snell, whose velocity is alarmingly down, is 2-2 with a 5.05 ERA. Gorzelanny, who was 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA last season, is 3-4 with a whopping 6.64 ERA. His control, good in the past, has been awful. He has walked 31 in 402/3 inning. That comes out to about seven every nine innings, a wholly unacceptable figure.

The Pirates' starters have a combined ERA of 5.66; opponents are batting .303 against them.

That's awful, even when you take into account that starts of since-released Matt Morris.

It's hard to win when the other team -- including the pitcher -- is batting over .300 against your starters.

The Pirates, despite their poor showing last night, have one of their better offenses in recent years. They were fourth in the National League in runs. But bad pitching will eventually drag down any offense.

The dream of Pirates fans continues to look unattainable.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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