Collier: This team's problems are hardly problems

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At some point on the dreary continuum from the Pirates' long deployment as a national joke to their recent arrival as a National League Central force that now gets a well-pitched game eight days a week, a seriously curious phenomenon emerged.

Somehow, at least for the moment, even this team's real problems aren't problems, really.

You'd think it would be an issue when the worst team in baseball, a sorry Houston Astros edition that will soon need the Hubble Space Telescope to locate fifth place, still puts a lineup on the field that has six more home runs than Clint Hurdle's.

You'd think it would be a problem for Hurdle when he has to plop down at his desk every afternoon and write the names of two to four Indianapolis Indians and one or two waiver-wire claims onto his lineup card just to get to Michael, a.k.a. Fort, McKenry, the stocky catching understudy who has now presided over 13 wins in 17 starts.

Somehow, and again, at least momentarily, what should be glaring problems look like charming idiosyncrasies. Anyone feverish?

"I've had people hurt before," said a Pirates manager whose disabled list looks like the line for "Transformers 3" and includes four everyday starters. "And I've had situations where the people you call up have not played well. It's like you're looking at your watch every five minutes, and every time you look at it, only 30 seconds has gone by while you're waiting for people to get healthy.

"That's why I think this is a watershed time for this organization. It's a tribute to our scouts and our player development people going three years back."

OK, so here's your official watershed moment: With this latest methodical 5-1 dismissal of the Astros, the Pirates won their 17th series of the season. In all of 2010, they won 16.

But before we settle ourselves to ponder the absolutely imponderable, namely which will happen first, a return to vital baseball health or an incursion into first place, Hurdle and his superiors will lay some groundwork.

A meeting is scheduled today with upper management that should draw the framework for the central, if seriously clichéd, question -- are the Pirates sellers or buyers as the trade deadline draws within weeks.

"We'll talk about external needs," Hurdle promised. "And options."

I don't think the external needs have changed that much.

Basically, they need Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, but in an era when the Kardashians make more money than the Pirates, that's not what you look for, even if that doesn't make it any less urgent.

The Pirates, despite their startling proximity to Fantasyland -- they slipped past the Milwaukee Brewers into second place Tuesday, as close as they've been to first this far into a summer in 14 years -- are still 12th in the league in runs scored, still 12th in homers, still 15th in slugging, and they might have gotten an unwelcome glimpse of the near future Tuesday night when Class AAA acquisitions Alex Presley and Chase d'Arnaud went 0 for 8 with four strikeouts and exactly one ball hit out of the infield. Though Presley came into the game hitting .364, and d'Arnaud an acceptable .250, there would seem to be a natural correction coming for Hurdle's severely inexperienced hitters.

But nothing about this team seems very natural.

If I'd told you in March that in the week before the All-Star break, Brandon Wood would have twice as many Pirate homers as Pedro Alvarez, what would you have said?

Exactly -- "Who's Brandon Wood?"

Wood launched his fourth homer with Lyle Overbay on in front of him in the second inning, taking Wandy Rodriguez's first-pitch fastball to the seats for a 2-0 lead that set like concrete because of Jeff Karstens, who hasn't lost since May.

It would be the eighth consecutive game in which a Pirate starter allowed two earned runs or fewer.

"He was dealing," Wood said admiringly of Karstens. "He didn't leave a pitch up in the zone. He didn't miss a spot."

Rodriguez missed one with that first pitch to Wood, leaving it thigh high on the outer half and watching it morph into the kind of opposite field homer that is generally the prerogative of home-run hitters, not utility third basemen.

"I've always felt I had the ability to hit homers," said Wood, the Angels castoff who actually has 15 home runs in 633 big league at-bats. "It just hasn't happened that much at the big league level. For me it's always best to look for a fastball and adjust to something else."

The real adjustment now belongs to a city that generally looks for the Pirates in the NL Central cellar, not a game and a half out of first on the front end of July.

Yes, we've probably printed the standings upside down before, but not today.

Not today.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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