Gene Collier: Pirates top acts needed in a hurry



At the start of a three-game series matching two of the National League's certifiably desperate desperadoes -- they were leg-locked at 11/2 games behind in the wild-card standings -- the Pirates chose the opener against the Atlanta Braves Monday night to unleash one of the most anticipated subplots of the season.

Thus the words that feel so much like they needed to be typed directly into the PNC Park public address system.

Batting fifth and playing first base, Pedro Alvarez.

Alvarez at first.

Alvarez.

And, well, OK; Pedro was 0 for 4 with a strikeout, an inning-slaying double play, a tapper to first and four runners stranded, but ... Alvarez at first.

"After a couple of games, it'll be easier; it just felt new," Alvarez said of his first experience at the diamond's opposite edge. "It'll take some getting used to. It's different angles, different responsibilities. I was just excited to get the opportunity."

That's what you wanted right?

Since most of his 25 errors had come on throws, and since 25 errors represented about 200 percent more than anyone else on the club, the idea was to position El Throw-oh! somewhere that didn't require much throwing, and then, this thesis went, freed from the psychological yoke of never really knowing if he could keep a routine throw out of the expensive seats, Pedro might reconnect with something resembling his offensive confidence.

Well, maybe tonight.

The larger problem is, the Pirates are running out of tonights and will soon be running out of tomorrows.

For nearly five months their fans have wondered where the streak is, the streak that would take one of the most competitive teams in the league toward the top of the National League Central Division. Despite having one of the best records in baseball since early May, only three times this season did these Pirates win even four games in a row, let alone the eight, nine or 10 necessary to make a major political statement.

But here it is, a brand-new, lengthening six-gamer, and, oh wait; it's the other kind.

That's six consecutive losses for Clint Hurdle's team, which suddenly hasn't won in a week after clawing to within a game and a half of the first-place Brewers. This sixth one came just about as close as any loss can get to being preordained because one minute into it, Atlanta led, 1-0.

Two minutes later, it was 2-0.

By the end of the first, it was 6-0, and Vance Worley's career earned run average against the Braves was at that moment very much identical to one of the popular local area codes, 7.24.

I'm not sure having Willie Stargell at first can pull you out of a 6-0 sinkhole, but the Pirates were still again short in too many areas to pile up all their demerits against Alvarez. For starters, the losing streak includes eight errors, with the two Monday night almost appearing as if Neil Walker and Josh Harrison were trying to punk Alvarez with throws so bad they were reminiscent of Alvarez.

"We're definitely not playing the type of defense we're capable of," Hurdle said. "It hasn't been the same. We're gifting too many runs to the other side."

Walker's bad throw trying to turn a double play was part of that six-run first, and it helped generate an especially rotten karma in that Braves starter Ervin Santana looked eminently beatable.

Starling Marte homered in his first two at-bats against the Atlanta right-hander with the 13 wins, and Walker took him all the way to the river, but all three homers came with no one aboard, while nothing at all was produced with seven others on base.

Loss No. 61 ran the Pirates' 2014 left-on-base total to a fairly porcine 933, most in the league.

But it's more than just the demonic 6-6-6 line, the six-run first leading to the sixth consecutive loss that drove you six games behind idle Milwaukee. It's not just six losses in a row; it's 8 of 10, 10 of 15.

You don't do that, as Harrison pointed out, without producing more than enough fault to go around.

"I wouldn't necessarily be disappointed in the defense; it's part of the game and nobody's perfect," he said. "You can't just pinpoint on defense. We've had some opportunities at the plate, this and that. I don't want to harp too much on defense."

He's right, of course.

They were 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, pitched themselves off a cliff, did themselves no favors on the basepaths and had to give .143-hitting Brent Morel four more at-bats that generated three strikeouts and a foul pop.

For Act II, they likely will be able to put Andrew McCutchen back in center, then expect Gerrit Cole to appear on the mound for Act III. Those things are expected to reinvigorate this team pretty quickly. In fact, they'll pretty much have to. At the current direction and velocity, this show will be closed by the end of the month.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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