Pirates facing an ocean of trouble

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So it was that at precisely 8 p.m. July 18, this shockingly topical Pirates ship exited the calm, waveless sea and plunged into the crashing shark-infested waters mapped so consequentially on the official National League schedule, or at least that's the best metaphor I can whip up on the first day back from vacation, all right?

Clint Hurdle's team sailed through 13 games against the Nationals, Astros and Cubs with the minimal discomfort of a light chop, but the 13-game voyage that began Monday night against the Cincinnati Reds starts with a half-dozen critical NL Central melodramas and ends with seven road games against the two best teams in the league, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

When it's all over in the fading daylight of pungent South Philly a week from Sunday, the trade deadline will have struck almost simultaneously, and much of what you need to know about the course of the swashbuckling 2011 Pirates will be cast.

But let's not overstate it.

It's not like the August stretch, should the Pirates arrive there in something approximating relevance, which is 20 consecutive games against Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and defending world champion San Francisco.

And at least the sharks are metaphorical. It's not like the Pirates are in the perilous position of one Diana Nyad, the 61-year-old whose intentions to swim from Cuba to Key West in the next week or so were detailed in Monday's New York Times. A shark in the Florida Straits has, in fact, pretty teeth dear (ancient cultural reference alert!) and he shows them pearly white.

Nyad, according to Lizette Alvarez's story, attempted this very stunt in 1978, swimming in a shark cage, but was blown off course and had to quit after 50 miles. This time, ladies and gentlemen, no cage.

Farewell and adieu all you fair Spanish ladies

Seriously, great good luck to Diana Nyad, who according to the quoted experts in Monday's story will experience her tongue swelling ridiculously due to sea salt, her skin rubbed raw by the motion of the sea, and near total exertion among the sharks day and night, night and day.

I hope this doesn't mean she won't be tweeting.

As for the ballclub, it would appear, given the ocean of difficulty ahead, that Monday would have been an occasion for Hurdle to perhaps re-emphasize this team's operative canonical tenets, especially the infamous, ubiquitous one-game-at-a-time approach that suddenly seems so novel.

"I don't think we've got to re-emphasize," Hurdle said before the rain-soaked series opener. "We've talked about it from the start until now. I think it's helped the young players to simplify things.

"I've told them, 'let's just live in the moment.' "

At the moment the skipper spoke the Pirates had won eight of their past 12, 14 of their past 21, and hadn't lost a series in a solid month.

An oddly intriguing pitching matchup topped the program, that being Charlie Morton against the reclamation project Dontrelle Willis, two guys who know how to make pitching look excruciatingly difficult despite spasms of conspicuous success.

Willis was a joy to watch with the Florida Marlins in the middle of the previous decade, but since then the D-train has gone along overgrown tracks -- Lakeland, Toledo, Erie, Fresno, Louisville. Last year, Willis made $12 million, most of it from the Detroit Tigers, for winning two games.

Morton won five of his first eight starts this year as the new Charlie, then won just two of his next eight as the old Charlie, who came into this series 18-34 for his career.

The Pirates broke through against Willis in the fourth with RBIs by Andrew McCutchen and Matt Diaz for a 2-0 lead.

But while young players and old players alike remain keenly aware that you can't play these things two at a time, let alone two weeks at a time, the impact on the Pirates of 13 consecutive contests against teams who started the week 45 games above .500 remains perhaps fateful.

Fortunately, the Reds got to town without so much as having won twice in a row since June 15, which is rather astounding when you're leading the league in runs scored and can run out a lineup with 70 homers to the Pirates' 37.

Hurdle expected no one to blink.

"We had the same kind of questions when we'd lost six in a row and were headed to Cincinnati," he said.

That was May 18, when the season's longest losing streak turned into a four-game win streak. From May 27, the Pirates won 25 of the next 41.

"I think this club has confidence from the experiences of this season already," Hurdle said. "And it's going to help 'em."

He's looking for them to just take it one shark at a time, if you will, and that's good advice even in the straits of Florida.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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