Gene Collier: Pirates need one fast, complete turnaround

Big league baseball teams don't commonly go over the cliff in May, and this little essay shouldn't be interpreted as evidence that the Pirates are about to, only that they've just hit a patch of ice at the approach of a hairpin turn where the guard rail is out.

And their brakes are locked.

It's the co-mingling of the calendar and the schedule that's so fearsome right now, a stretch that began Tuesday night with a 9-2 loss against the Baltimore Orioles, the first of 16 games in 16 days, the last 10 of which are on the road.

This had to be on Neal Huntington's mind when the Pirates general manager mentioned to the New York Times late last week that this would be a good time for the ballclub to start at least impersonating a contender.

"We've shifted our fans' mindset from hoping to be .500 to expecting to be in the playoffs," Huntington told the Times' Tyler Kepner in advance of last weekend's series at Yankee Stadium, "And that's fantastic, it means we've done some good things, but it also means we've got to continue to do those good things to stay competitive and to stay in a position to get into the postseason.

"Right now, we've got to do some things to climb back into that discussion, and we probably need to start doing them pretty soon."

Safe to say, probably has been upgraded to definitely, and Huntington hasn't done a lot to help. Management's decision to sign Edinson Volquez ($5 million) instead of A.J. Burnett ($16 million) blatantly undermined a since-collapsed starting rotation that last night slipped to 5-20.

Three of the five starters have no wins at all, which Huntington certainly could not have foreseen, but the whole Volquez-could-be-this-year's-Francisco Liriano notion remains closer to fantasy than serious projection.

If anything, Liriano, torched for six earned runs in five innings in the series opener against Baltimore, looks like last year's Edinson Volquez. Liriano's earned run average puffed to an exorbitant 4.86 as his record went to 0-4. Volquez weighed in at 5.71 in that category a year ago, but at least he won nine games.

"When you flip over the hour glass and start the season, there comes a time when you realize you never can recapture a game and [43] are gone," manager Clint Hurdle was saying as the homestand was about to begin. "We've talked from opening day about our overall consistency, and there comes a time when you can't think it's early. You can't say it's early any more. We've got to find ways to execute at a championship level to be more consistent across the board. It starts tonight."

Or it doesn't.

It started instead with the kind of offensive tedium fans of this Pirates edition have come to expect and detest, with infrequent baserunners stranded with reliable frequency.

Pedro Alvarez came to the plate with Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen on base in the first inning and tapped weakly into a forceout. The cleanup hitter hasn't driven in a run since Mother's Day. El Bore-O stranded two more with one out in the third, taking a called third strike.

Good news, though -- the Pirates advanced metrics mavens considered it a productive at-bat, because Alvarez was in there for 10 pitches, driving up Miguel Gonzalez's pitch count to the point where he almost had some difficulty pitching into the seventh.

In case you're wondering, yes, a three-run homer is still considered a productive at-bat, should we ever actually see one.

Three runs in an instant doesn't happen much on a team that has scored three runs or fewer an astonishing 23 times in 44 games. Its record in those 23 games: 3-20.

"Tomorrow's a fresh start," said the unflappable manager. "We've got to find a way to get off the mound clean, to score some runners -- we got opportunities, had two missed opportunities with a couple men on base.

"You pop somethin' there, get one to the gap, get a single, hit a homer, different things can happen. We just gotta find ways to keep pushin'. You've got to keep your confidence level high. We gotta back-bone up."

Managers and general managers never deal in these kinds of specific projections anywhere but behind close doors, but I don't think either Hurdle or Huntington would disagree that the Pirates badly need 10 wins in the 16-game stretch that just started with a thundering loss.

If they split these six at home and turn in a typically desultory road trip (they're 6-14 in gray pants), June will introduce nothing but a long, shot summer.

Gene Collier:

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