Gene Collier: Pirates offense proving to be a struggle

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You sure don’t want to be drawing many conclusions based on the first 1/81st of the Pirates season, so let’s not go any further onto the rhetorical limb than to say this whole National League Central campaign is going to be pretty easy so long as the opponents aren’t going to actually score.

As in ever. Yeah, that would be safe to say.

At least that’s what I was thinking after the Cubs stacked up 17 scoreless innings against the first seven Pirates who walked to the mound in the first two games of the series that concludes today, presumably with a shutout or near shutout of some kind.

Charlie Morton worked the first six innings Wednesday night, matching the six Francisco Liriano cruised through in the opener, each doing just enough for Clint Hurdle to cue the bullpen.

Morton was nasty enough, particularly when he plunked cleanup hitter Anthony Rizzo an inning after watching Starling Marte take a pitch off the hand from Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, but nobody not named Emilio Bonifacio has emerged from the Chicago dugout in this series with any malicious purpose for the stick he’s carrying.

When Bonifacio looped a single to right off Mark Melancon to start the Cubs eighth, he was 7 for 9 in the series. Everybody else was 3 for 57.

When the Cubs finally pushed a run across, barely 56 hours after the season’s first pitch, it came only with the help of that popular new administrative wrinkle, the replay challenge.

Oh my, what excitement.

While 29,762 sat around in the plunging temperatures, the umpires convened twice to watch TV for a total of more than seven minutes, deciding most pivotally that the double play the Pirates had turned to end the eighth inning was not a double play, and that Bonifacio had scored from third on Nate Schierholtz’s grounder.

It was a worthy gambit by first-year Cubs manager Rick Renteria, known to most fans as the answer to the little-asked trivia question, “Who was the San Diego Padres’ first base coach in 2008?”

Turns out that Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer had apparently been pulled off second by Neil Walker’s throw, thus the so-called “neighborhood play” (as in “he was in the neighborhood of second”) got caught in the replay wringer.

Before that, I thought the neighborhood play was not reviewable, as it shouldn’t be.

Nor should anything else, but that’s another column, right?

Forced to generate offense strictly from the ballfield rather than from Replay Command Central (are they in NATO?), the Cubs went right back to what they were doing — nothing.

Melancon got the second final out of the eighth, and Jason Grilli was working on a scoreless ninth, but before he could push the Pirates’ record to 2-0 with only 160 to play, the Cubs got Bonifacio to the plate again with Junior Lake on first. Bonifacio then spanked his eighth hit in two games, sending Lake to third, and Luis Valbuena lashed a single to right for an actual run-scoring hit to tie the score, 2-2.

The current issue for Hurdle’s team, however, is not that the bullpen is just 1 for 2; it’s that the Pirates offense is the currently mirror image of the Cubs. When you’re pitching like Ray Searage’s staff is at the moment, you should be squashing the Cubs like they’re, um, the Cubs.

Instead you’re playing five hours and averaging less than a hit and hour, you’re combining with the Cubs to strand 23 runners through 12 innings, you’re in extra innings in back-to-back games while you’re waiting for Travis Snider to turn into the 2012 edition of Garrett Jones. Could he please just turn into Jose Tabata for a couple of games?

Likewise you’re also waiting for the first 2014 hit off the celebrated bat of Pedro Alvarez, just as you’re waiting for something truly bizarre, such as two runs in the same inning.

The Pirates had a chance to roll the offense downhill Wednesday night against Jackson, who has been a durable pitcher in his career but not a terribly good one. He has made 30 starts in each of his past seven seasons, one of only eight big league pitchers to do so, but he also has been with eight organizations while doing it.

For some reason, the former Dodger-Ray-Tiger-Diamondback-White Sox-Cardinal-National does well against the Pirates, beating them twice again last year for 25 percent of his wins in an 8-18 summer.

That they let Jackson off the hook last night should give the Pirates something to think about, at least while they come to some uneasy understanding of how the neighborhood play is no longer the neighborhood play, at least for technological purposes.

Yeah, you knew you’d love this.

Gene Collier:

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