Gene Collier: Two, three more bats would help

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CHICAGO

So this is the way it's going to be, huh?

The Pirates offense, one night after scoring early and often, as they say, goes right back to scoring seldom and late, which they generally don't say, even when it happens.

Remember that 12-run outburst Friday night against the St. Louis Cardinals?

The next night -- one run on six hits.

Day after that -- two runs on six hits.

And then through five innings Wednesday night by Lake Michigan, with the wind blowing out to left so invitingly, one run on -- wait let me count 'em -- one hit.

Yeah, it was a long one, but it was a long time coming.

Pedro Alvarez launched a 1-2 pitch from Chicago's Jason Hammel into the seats in left, trashing Hammel's perfect little game after the 12th consecutive out, but that came only minutes before the scuffling Cubs swatted back-to-back homers off Wandy Rodriguez to erect the exact kind of 4-1 lead that looks like 40-1 to a team that got to the ballpark hitting .242 and promptly went 1-for-its-first-19.

"We just didn't do enough early to stay in the game," said Pirates catcher Russell Martin, who swatted a couple of solo homers late. "Hammel did a great job."

Rodriguez looked to have wiggled out of the Cubs' fifth when Anthony Rizzo lifted his 2-2 pitch to medium left-center field after two outs, but it fell in the grass between Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, which few baseballs do, particular those with a pronounced arc.

On cue, Cubs rookie Mike Olt deposited the very next pitch into the basket atop the left-field wall and Junior Lake, who had looked awful in his first two plate appearances, ripped a 2-0 pitch all the way to Waveland Avenue.

With that, the Scufflers were off toward a 7-5 victory, but it probably wouldn't be totally accurate to blame the Pirates' slumping early season offense.

These aren't the slumping Pirates.

These are the Pirates.

Don't let five solo homers, four of them pretty much after the fact, spin it into something it's not.

"I am confident," Hurdle said about the likelihood of a emerging, sustained Pirates offense. "[But] you're gonna say it's early in the season until it's not early in the season. The guy on the mound [Wednesday night] has been a puzzle for us, two consecutive outings. He's made pitches. When the ball's down, it sinks well. Against the right-handers, it's basically sinker-slider and then with left-handers he mixes in the curve and the changeup, so he's a four-pitch guy.

"We haven been able to throw many punches to him. We responded better after he left."

Before the game, Hurdle described this team as "pretty much a one-run club since I've been here," regarding the fact that all four Cubs-Pirates games had been one-run affairs. "We pitch and play defense. When you pitch and play defense, more often than not, that's where you're going to end up."

And less often than not, you're going to be staring at a six-run deficit with very few options, even at windy Wrigley Field.

The anemic early production Wednesday night stretched this team's futility against Hammel toward 14 innings. The Pirates went 2 for 22 against him a week ago at PNC Park, then didn't manage so much as a baserunner through four innings this time.

Hammel hasn't stuck around The Show for nine years for nothin', but there's no need to make him look like Justin Verlander. Hammel is with his fourth team, taking to the mound for his first home start as a Cubs pitcher with a big-league record of 50-59, along with that squishy 4.78 career ERA.

The Pirates are now 5 for 45 against him, with three homers.

Travis Snider homered when it was 7-1 Chicago. Russell Martin when it was 7-2. Alvarez and Martin wound up adding ninth-inning homers against Pedro Strop.

Elsewhere in your up-and-down-but-mostly-down lineup, shortstop Jordy Mercer extended the kind of start with the bat that makes you want to take a look at Clint Barmes. Jordy was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting average to .154. He has driven in one run.

That's the worst average in what has become the standard lineup, in which Hurdle puts all left-handed hands on deck against right-handers, leaving his bench a strictly right-handed proposition. Alvarez's average has stayed under .200 as well, but he's chased home seven runs with four homers.

Given the continuingly dubious offensive potential of the battling Travises, Snider in right and Ishikawa at first, the Pirates are going to seem seriously ineffective with the bat in games when Marte and McCutchen don't help.

Marte's nine-game Wrigley Field hitting streak ended without him getting a ball out of the infield, and McCutchen, a career .380 hitter at The Friendly Confines, went 0 for 4 to join Starling in a combined 0 for 8.

Those guys will hit, or at least their long-term contracts and productive resumes suggest as much. But this team certainly isn't reliable for consistency 1 thru 8, and next to no money got spent over the winter to correct that.

It's still more than three months down the road, but you can almost hear the question coming, right?

Do the Pirates need to add a bat?

Heavens no. They need two, or three.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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