Gene Collier: Pirates have little success cleaning up roster mess



Somewhere in the middle of the mercurial Andrew McCutchen situation, the unfortunate Pedro Alvarez situation, the ominously constrictive roster situation and the artificially compelling situation in which Potato Pete started his first pierogi race since the second Bush administration, the Pirates were actually required to play a baseball game.

Man, it's always somethin'.

The pennant race grinds on, with most of eight weeks still stretching past the horizon line. The game pauses not for us to ponder the implications of McCutchen's avulsion fracture, the one involving the costochondral cartilage of the left 11th rib, the one that, coupled with Alvarez's absence on bereavement leave and assorted other factors, resulted in one of Clint Hurdle's odder lineup cards for the opener of a three-game series with the Miami Marlins.

This one had Gaby Sanchez batting cleanup, which is hardly unprecedented, but there is a point where it no longer makes sense and that point has disappeared in the rearview mirror.

With the possible exception of .150-hitting futility infielder Jayson Nix, every other player in Hurdle's starting lineup was better suited to hit cleanup Tuesday night than the cleanup hitter -- Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, Gregory Polanco and even Chris Stewart, who came into play 7 for his past 13.

Nix somehow hit sixth, which is very nearly as confounding.

Sanchez, positioned to take advantage of left-handed starter Brad Hand (4-for-13 lifetime), tapped weakly to third in the first with a runner on, tapped weakly to second to lead off the fourth, then with Harrison in scoring position and two out in the sixth, tapped weakly to second again, leaving him 10 for 56 this season with runners in scoring position (.179).

That's your cleanup hitter. Player of the Weak.

"This his been an outlier year for him against left-handed pitching," Hurdle admitted after a 6-3 Fish wrap. "He's been a very consistent performer against left-handed pitching at the major league level. This hasn't been one of the years we've come to see from him, not the kind of year where's been able to produce, at least to this point."

Would this be a good time to send along a tip of the cap to former Pirates first baseman Casey McGehee? Go ahead, he's standing right there in game fish orange, and his .351 batting average with runners in scoring position leads the National League.

Oh my.

At the non-waiver trade deadline two years ago last month, the Pirates sent him to the Yankees for reliever Chad Qualls.

Good one.

McGehee further appears in National League top-10s for batting average, walks, hits and on-base percentage.

Hmm.

"Just trying to take my hits, get back to it, not try to do too much," McGehee said after his average finally dipped under .300 Tuesday night. "Confidence is a big thing. I think I was always a pretty confident hitter with runners on, but it's one of those things you don't really realize until after you've lost it, but I feel like I've got that confidence back."

McGehee has been a revelation to a Miami team that has hung around a lot longer than anyone expected after ace Jose Fernandez went down with elbow trouble, giving the Marlins a much more stable cleanup spot than the team that traded him two years ago.

With a right-hander on the Marlins mound in the eighth, Hurdle sent Ike Davis up to hit for Sanchez. Davis struck out. To be sure, it wasn't like hits were plentiful from everywhere but the fourth spot, but with McCutchen in the dugout with an uncertain prognosis -- no one was taking the disabled list off the table -- the lineup's inherent weaknesses are suddenly in stark relief.

Stark relief, as it happens, was ultimately what scuttled Game 1 of an eight-game homestand, in which the Pirates bullpen took over for Charlie Morton in the eighth and walked everyone but Potato Pete, who drew the biggest cheers of the night from a healthy Pup Night crowd when he came from way up the track to win the tradition ethnic foodstuff derby.

"Anytime you lose one of the best players in the game of baseball, it's not gonna be easy," said Walker, who was back in the lineup but didn't make it through eight innings before his back tightened on him again. "It's a team game and we're gonna have to play well and not do anything different than what we normally do, not push to do more than we're capable of."

Thus the Pirates are officially 0-1 in the costochondral cartilage era, but there really is at least one thing they should do differently.

Write somebody else's name in that cleanup spot.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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