Gene Collier: Pirates have to hurry to catch 2013 pace



With Gregory Polanco at the plate in the ninth inning Saturday and the Pirates about to go 0-for-their-last-13 in a 5-3 loss to the Mets, a tepid but oddly symbolic chant went up from the Pittsburgh baseball season's seventh sellout.

"Let's go Plawn-ko! Let's go Plawn-ko!"

Polanco's brilliant big-league start was bumping into one of its few dim moments, 0 for 5 with two strikeouts and nothing he had struck leaving the infield, so it wasn't a good time to explain to him that the home audience is known to drop a syllable to two.

Po-lan-co thus becomes "Plawn-ko" much in the way balloons are somehow "bloons," as in "Here, blow up eez bloons!"

The symbolism comes in the fact the Pirates are going to have to do things in a hurry in the second half of the season, which starts today; they might have to skip a few metaphorical syllables themselves if they're going to approach last summer's level of streak-busting success.

After 81 games a year ago, they were 51-30. Today they are 41-40, and I wouldn't recommend a four-game split with the Mets as a plausible first step.

"We're not where we anticipated we would be," said Neil Walker, whose RBI bingle with two outs in the fifth was the final hit Saturday. "But absolutely, I think we're still well-positioned. We're not so far back. We've got two teams in our division that are having good years, but we knew coming into this season that the two wild-card teams might come out of this division again."

Milwaukee pretty much refuses to lose, getting its 51st win Saturday against Colorado and maintaining a healthy lead over St. Louis. In failing to climb out of the 5-0 ditch Gerrit Cole drove them into, the Pirates fell nine games back.

Cole hadn't pitched since early in the month, owing to a tired shoulder, but his velocity was fine Saturday even if everything else wasn't. His rhythm was atrocious over four uphill innings in which allowed four stolen bases and was visited at the mound by everyone except Tommy the Vendor. He also allowed five earned runs, self-administering a chiropractic adjustment to his earned run average (3.64 to 4.02). Still, it could have been a lot worse had either of the two rockets Daniel Murphy launched off of him stayed to the left of the right-field foul pole.

Even at that, the Pirates got enough splendid bullpen work from Stolmy Pimentel (four innings, seven strikeouts) to stay in position to solve this one with a bomb or two, but nothing like that arrived.

Pedro Alvarez, hitting seventh against left-handed starter Jonathon Niese, didn't leave the infield let alone the yard, and his numbers at the halfway point are off even more demonstrably than his team's win/loss differential.

A year ago, Pedro was on his way to 36 homers and 100 RBIs, but projects right now to something more like 24 and 78. He's got two homers in June.

"We can cherry pick numbers all day long and you can work 'em on both sides of fence," said Clint Hurdle. "Look at our month of June, why would we change what we're doing? Look at the volume of play, the way we've been playin' baseball. We've had a solid month of June. We got better in May. We've just got to keep getting better every day [with] the rotation giving us the innings we need so we can use the bullpen the way we want to. Offensively, we keep grinding out at bats and keep finding different ways to score in the lineup."

Hurdle sees the best way to do that as having a healthy Starling Marte back in the second spot in the batting order, and allowing Walker, only recently recovered from an appendectomy, to settle in at fourth against right-handed pitching.

"I feel fine about that," Walker said. "I had some good at-bats [Saturday] even if it's taken a little while for my rhythm to come back," Walker said. "I like hitting with men on base and historically I've been pretty good at that.

"I like the challenge."

Not everybody does right now.

Though Alvarez and Chris Stewart managed to work bases-loaded walks against Niese in the fourth, Marte and Polanco struck out with the bases loaded and Niese on the ropes. The Pirates are 8-for-their-last-37 with runners in scoring position (.216), but I guess that would be cherry-picking.

This much there is no getting around: Not only are the Pirates halfway through the season this morning, they are also just past the halfway point in a 16-game stretch where they're playing four last-place teams and one next-to-last place team. So far on this golden opportunity tour, they're 6-3. If they don't get five of the remaining seven, well, let's just say I wouldn't be blowin' up any bloons.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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