Gene Collier: Even at full strength, Pirates look baffled

To extend this potentially season-curdling free fall to seven games, the Pirates presented Tuesday what was either the worst pitching performance of the summer or a really dreary episode of Upton Abby.

But before we get to the gore, let’s not let the occasion pass with a hearty, “Happy Anniversary.”

Yes this elaborate August swan dive is old enough to have anniversaries now. Tuesday night was the one week anniversary of the last time the Pirates won a baseball game.

Francisco Liriano, whose job it is to stop this kind of thing, instead soaked it in accelerants, allowing 10 hits, three walks and nine runs in four dreadful innings on a night when the Upton brothers alone would have beaten the Pirates by three runs.

Justin Upton drove in five runs and B.J. a sixth while the Braves rolled to a fifth consecutive win and pushed the Pirates toward the plank.

Unless Gerrit Cole, who will make his first start since July 4 tonight in the final game of this series, can smother a fierce Atlanta offense that is pounding away at better than 14 hits per night since Monday, the Pirates could wind up signing surrender papers this weekend in Milwaukee.

Wild-card race?

Hey, as Clint Hurdle said the other day, you can lose a lot of your day trying to find relevance in wild-card scenarios, and this team has the manager in such a pickle right now he can barely afford to lose a quarter in a vending machine.

I guess when the ERA of your starting pitchers in this series is 10.80, you don’t have to analyze much, so no one was suggesting that Michael Martinez being optioned to Indianapolis right before the team photo Tuesday left the Pirates too rattled to compete with Aaron Harang.

But if the home team’s pitchers these past few nights aggravated you to unhealthy levels, I would submit that the performance of Hurdle’s fully repaired lineup was equally as awful as Liriano.

“When you have a cushion like that, it makes it easier for sure,” said Andrew McCutchen about the 5-1 Atlanta lead that was swelling rapidly toward 11-3. “[Harang] was hitting his spots, working his offspeed stuff, working a lot on the corners.”

Harang has been around the block, particularly the block that includes Mazeroski Way and Federal Street; he has started more games against the Pirates than any active pitcher (27) and has beaten them 16 times, more than anyone except Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto (16, as well).

But Harang is 36 and not exactly bringing the heat. He is slopping breaking pitches and changeups to the plate in the mid-70s and low-80s. His fastball rarely touches 90 mph. In his previous start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he exited with one out in the fifth having allowed 5 earned runs, 7 hits and 3 walks. Left-handed hitters were hitting .313 against him. He hadn’t won since July 10.

He was pretty much the profile of a starter you have to beat if you’re serious about extending your summer.

It looked very much like the Pirates are no longer serious.

“I was getting ahead and guys made some plays for me,” Harang said. “I just stayed around the plate and they were being aggressive, putting the ball in play. I felt comfortable, throwing all my pitches around the zone.”

A fastball-hitting team, Hurdle’s guys were baffled by Harang’s floatilla of tomfoolery.

Steelers wideout Antonio Brown took batting practice with the club an hour before the game. A left-handed batter himself, the Steelers MVP looked pretty ineffectual with the lumber, but no worse than McCutchen, Neil Walker, Josh Harrison and Ike Davis, who went a combined 1 for 15.

Both Harang and Ervin Santana, Atlanta’s starter Monday, were highly gettable, or so it seemed.

“Yeah, yeah” Hurdle agreed. “We’ve had opportunities and we’ve moved on them in the past, but we weren’t able to move on it [Monday] night, we had an opportunity to do more damage. [Tuesday] we had some opportunities to push Harang more and we weren’t able to do that.

“He’s a guy a lot of people take for granted, but he’s thrown some very good ballgames and pitched deep into games. Again, there are tipping points where you need one good at-bat, a big hit at a certain time that can change the direction of a game and we haven’t done it, at times, for the last week.”

True enough, and without the immediate mandatory U-turn, we’re very close to embarking on 51⁄2 weeks of total irrelevance.

Gene Collier:

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