Collier: Help wanted for Pirates offense


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Fifty minutes or so into the second Pirates rain delay in as many nights (this one with actual rain), a bat swooped over the roof of PNC Park and flew toward the big press box windows, veering off at the last millisecond and climbing back toward an unrelenting ceiling of dark clouds.

I mention this only because so many of you have been demonstrably anxious for the Pirates to add a bat.

Close enough?

Close is mostly what the Pirates' bats do right now, the wooden kind, the kind that scrounged all of six runs in the four games leading up to the finale Wednesday night against the Oakland A's.

It's the kind of desultory offensive performance that brings to mind some of baseball's doddering but still evocative imagery: Couldn't hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle.

You have to wonder sometimes how manager Clint Hurdle views these common stretches of futility. Hurdle is a graduate-level hitting coach who employs another hitting coach, Jay Bell, and still another assisting hitting coach, Jeff Branson, and all it has meant is that the Pirates arrived at July 10 hitting .242, good for 25th among baseball's 30 franchises.

With runners in scoring position, they were presenting a pallid .228 batting average, which was 29th at that moment.

There are several ways to phrase the question ("What the hell?" for example), but the best way seemed something like this: In your opinion, Mr. Manager, is this Pirates edition not fulfilling its potential offensively and therefore inextricably linked to its pitching fortunes, or will there soon be realized a certain self-correction in terms of run production?

"I believe it's an offense that will self-correct," Hurdle was saying as still another weather system was turning still another section of Pittsburgh into an aquarium. "We have a number of individuals that probably haven't met the expectations that we projected for them, and we have a few who have. They are mindful of that as well.

"I think we all like our team. We are committed to working hard every day to get a little bit better. Guys are not gonna panic. We're always going to be predicated on pitching, speed and defense, but on offense we'll eventually get the results we want. If effort is there, the approach is there, the discipline is there, we'll eventually get what we want."

If that's reflective of management's general position, then so long as these Pirates continue to lead the world in pitching, patience can be virtuous when it comes to a ponderous offense.

I continue to feel as though this offensive will bloom in time, and what Hurdle characterizes as "what we want" isn't terribly mysterious.

He probably wants Andrew McCutchen to find more pitches he can drive, the better to accelerate production toward last year's homer total of 31, last year's RBI total of 96, in lieu of current projections of 16 and 84, respectively.

But McCutchen is hardly a problem.

Travis Snider is a problem.

A corner outfielder with three home runs and a slugging percentage of .335 isn't something a major league team should find terribly useful.

Hurdle probably wants Garrett Jones to replicate his full-blooming 2012 as well, meaning something like 27 homers and 86 RBIs in lieu of current projections of 15 and 64, respectively.

Those still-unfolding stories, as well as the fact that Hurdle has gotten next to nothing from a bench that merely clogs traffic on the Interstate (Josh Harrison .143, Brandon Inge .184, Michael McKenry .189) and produces fewer pinch-hits than all but three National League teams, represent the unrealized potential of this offense, even as Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte are having seasons that could inflate to full clarity.

The trick, then, is to figure out which aspects of an offense that still strikes out an unconscionable amount (almost 8.5 times per game) will self-correct, and which need to be augmented by general manager Neal Huntington who should, in those cases, all together now, add a bat.

The Pirates still have three weeks to figure this out, and will spend it doing what they typically do in the batter's box: Try like hell, strike out a ton and hope to drive in one more run than the other guys.

"Get hits," Hurdle said when the question was rephrased still again. "They understand that you just gotta go up there and compete. Go up there thinking not so much, 'I got to' as 'I get to.'

"You gotta get to a point where your confidence isn't reflected upon your last at-bat or your last game or your last three games. Your confidence is your confidence.

"Is the pressure on you or on the pitcher? Make sure it's on the pitcher. Once the pitch is out of his hand, he's done -- you're in charge. Are you going to be in charge for 56 feet or not until the ball gets to the box? A lot of time, we've been getting that approach, but maybe only half the time right now. We had a couple of balls we absolutely hammered the other night, and got nothing for it. That's the beauty of the game."

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Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published July 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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