Cook: It's time to embrace Pirates' pitching


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Former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield had a curious way of looking at baseball. Please, hold the jokes. Before each series, Littlefield would compare his team's starting pitchers to the opponent's starters. "We have an edge with Kris Benson against [Jimmy] Haynes," he would say. "It's a toss-up with Kip Wells and [Ryan] Dempster. I like Josh Fogg over [Jimmy] Anderson. This should be a good series for us."

Littlefield said just that before the season-opening series in 2003 in Cincinnati. The Pirates swept the Reds. Unfortunately, for Littlefield and his team, there were too many Ryan Vogelsong vs. CC Sabathia and Jeff D'Amico vs. Curt Schilling matchups later in the summer. Those Pirates finished 75-87.

This is just a guess, but Littlefield probably would love generally managing the 2013 Pirates.

All of us have done much moaning about the team's often-lame offense. The complaints have not been without justification. The Pirates need to get more hitting from first base, second base, shortstop and, if Jose Tabata isn't the long-term answer, right field. They struggle mightily to score runs.

But today doesn't seem like the right day for fretting. The Pirates will take a 54-36 record into their game tonight at PNC Park against the New York Mets, the start of their final series before the All-Star break. Can we step back and take a moment to appreciate the pitching staff? It has been wonderful. Its 3.09 ERA was the best in baseball going into the games Thursday. Its .225 batting average against was the lowest in the game. Its 1.18 WHIP was tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the best in baseball. All of that is beyond wonderful.

The pitchers are why the Pirates aren't going to collapse again in the second half. They are why the team will end its horrendous streak of 20 consecutive seasons. They might even be good enough to get the Pirates to the postseason for the first time since 1992. They held a 7 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals for the final playoff spot going into Thursday.

The bullpen has been the best in baseball. No less than Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland said that earlier in the season. Many nights, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli turn a game into a seven-inning game. The Pirates are 41-2 when they lead after seven.

But it is the starting pitchers who deserve the most credit. They are without three of the five men in their season-opening rotation -- Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez -- and didn't have a fourth -- A.J. Burnett -- for a month. They didn't just survive. They have thrived. They have allowed three or fewer earned runs in 24 of their past 25 starts.

Francisco Liriano has been a revelation since joining the rotation May 11. A 9-3 record. A 2.00 ERA, which is second lowest in baseball behind the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw among regular starters. A string of 10 of 12 starts in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer. He has been amazing.

Jeff Locke also has had surprising success. He went 16 consecutive starts without losing before a 2-1 loss Monday night to the Oakland Athletics. That defeat might have been his most impressive outing; he gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings. His 2.15 ERA is the third best in baseball.

Burnett returned to the rotation Sunday after a month off because of a calf injury. He threw five strong innings against the Chicago Cubs and appears ready for a good second half.

Phenom Gerrit Cole has gone at least six innings in four of his six starts and allowed three or fewer runs in each. The Pirates should send him back to the minor leagues today or Saturday. Not because he has pitched poorly; he allowed two runs and five hits in a 2-1 loss Tuesday night to the Athletics. Because he could stay on a five-day schedule, something he can't do with the Pirates, who are off four days next week for the break. And, just as important, because the Pirates could slow his Super 2 arbitration clock and save the franchise millions down the road. Cole could return for an important series against the Nationals July 22-25 when the Pirates will need a fifth starter.

Charlie Morton is the weak spot in the rotation, but he has made just five starts -- one was cut to two innings because of a rain delay -- since returning from Tommy John elbow surgery. There is no reason to think he won't get stronger with each outing, perhaps starting tonight when he gets the ball against the Mets.

If Morton fails, Jeanmar Gomez has shown he can give the Pirates at least five good innings. His WHIP is lower than that of Liriano, Locke, Cole and Morton.

We're talking talent and depth.

That doesn't mean you are wrong if you are skeptical. You earned that right last season after watching the Pirates go 16-36 down the stretch, one of the worst collapses in baseball history. Their team ERA was 3.47 before the All-Star break, 4.29 after. No one represented that failure more than McDonald, who followed a superb first half with a pathetic second.

But it's hard to imagine any of the starters falling apart like that this season. Not Liriano, who often was inconsistent with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. Not Locke and Cole, who are mere babies in a baseball sense. Certainly not Burnett.

Worry about the Pirates hitters tomorrow.

Enjoy the pitchers today.

They are a special group.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published July 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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