Ron Cook: Tough loss followed by stellar win for Pirates



The day started with horrible news. Jameson Taillon, one of the two biggest pieces of the Pirates' near future, will have Tommy John elbow surgery and miss this season and maybe next. It ended with the Pirates' Edinson Volquez, a journeyman to be kind, holding his own, if not outpitching, the St. Louis Cardinals' great Adam Wainwright, one of the best starters in baseball. There might not be a more impressive or unlikely Pirates win all season than their 2-1 victory Sunday at PNC Park.

The Taillon news shows why sports careers are so fragile. So much can be lost so quickly, in an instant, really. One day, Taillon was hoping to join the Pirates this summer from Class AAA Indianapolis and give them a midseason lift, much the way Gerrit Cole did last season. The next day, he has to deal with career-altering surgery. It's potentially devastating for a young pitcher, but Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle were quick to say Taillon is in a good place mentally as he faces it. Taillon certainly knows he is not alone or the first to go through it. "Throwing a baseball is very unnatural motion," Huntington said. "Twenty-five percent of the pitchers on opening day in 2013 had Tommy John."

Games such as Sunday's show why sports are so fascinating. You never know what's going to happen. If you had thought about betting the house on Wainwright and the Cardinals beating Volquez and the Pirates, you would not have been alone. Good thing you didn't. You would have lost, big time. "I pitched a great game today," Volquez said.

Who saw that coming?

Since the December day when Huntington signed Volquez as an expensive reclamation project for $5 million this season, the two have taken a beating in the court of public opinion. Volquez, who hasn't been effective since 2008, his first full season in the majors, acknowledged a lot of people expect him to fail. "I know I have a lot of eyes on me," he said before the Sunday start.

"Still do," he said after. "Let's not get crazy. This is just one game."

But what a game it was.

"He pitched a gem ... a flat-out gem," Hurdle said.

Volquez gave up a single to Matt Carpenter to open the game, then retired the next 16 Cardinals before Wainwright, of all people, singled with one out in the sixth inning. Pirates fans were quick to show their appreciation, wrapping their arms around Volquez and sending him out of the game with a standing ovation after he gave up a tying triple to Jon Jay later in the sixth. The applause seemed especially loud, maybe because the 25,704 at the park realized they were watching a remarkable performance against the best team in the National League last season and its Cy Young Award runner-up pitcher.

"He matched Wainwright the entire time he was out there," Hurdle said.

Not that Volquez had much choice.

"With him, no," he said of Wainwright. "Especially with that team. They can score runs, but even one run can beat you with him pitching."

Volquez will get his next start Saturday night in Milwaukee. "This is still a process," he said. "I still have a lot of work to do." Volquez worked closely with pitching coach Ray Searage in spring training, trying not to overthrow and keeping his front side closed, stepping more directly toward the plate. The results were lousy, prompting the outrage toward Huntington for wasting $5 million of the Pirates' precious money. But they were much better Sunday.

"We can't get crazy," Volquez said for a second time. "This is just one start."

The Pirates need Volquez to be a solid fifth starter, now more than ever, after Taillon's injury. "A bad loss for the team," Volquez called the loss of Taillon. "The way he pitched during the spring and last season ... he competes. They love this kid here."

The Pirates were counting on Taillon and hotshot outfield prospect Gregory Polanco joining the big club this summer from Indianapolis. Now, only Polanco will be here, although, if sports have taught us anything, it's that there are no guarantees.

Huntington mentioned Pirates relievers Stolmy Pimentel and Jeanmar Gomez as potential starters, should the need for one or more arise in the long, challenging baseball season. He also mentioned Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin at Indianapolis.

Volquez has a chance to ease the Pirates' concerns about a rotation without Taillon. He said he doesn't worry about that pressure, the pressure of trying to re-establish his career, the pressure from the scrutiny of all those eyeballs.

"I don't even think about it," Volquez said. "I just try to do my job. I have a very strong mind. I always try to stay positive."

That will be easier for Volquez after this start. It should also be a bit easier for the Pirates after the Taillon news.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published April 6, 2014 11:19 PM

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