Ron Cook: Pirates' biggest loss would be an injured Gerrit Cole



You know it's a rotten day for your baseball team when the highlight is making five errors and getting blown out by the club you are chasing in your division. The really bad news for the Pirates didn't come Saturday night until after their 9-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. Manager Clint Hurdle said staff ace Gerrit Cole is a likely candidate for the disabled list because of "shoulder fatigue." Cole wasn't in the mood to discuss it, quickly leaving the clubhouse, uttering, "Not tonight," as he went. No further details were offered about the severity of the problem.

"I think fatigue is the proper word," Hurdle said when asked if he believes Cole is in serious trouble. "We really feel it's fatigue at this point in time."

The ambiguity leaves the rest of us to do what we do best, which is to speculate.

This is not good for the Pirates.

There could be more troubling news. Hurdle also announced that Jeff Locke will be summoned from Class AAA Indianapolis to start the game today against the Brewers in place of Charlie Morton, who will be pushed back at least until Monday against the Chicago Cubs. "That's our intention," Hurdle said, making it clear the plan is subject to change.

That's because it is believed Morton also has some sort of ailment, although not necessarily arm-related. The guess here is the Pirates will wait until Monday to see how Morton is feeling before giving him the ball against the Cubs. Indianapolis right-hander Vance Worley is a candidate to replace Morton, if necessary.

You might guess all of this is taboo around Pirates headquarters. No one is saying much of anything about anything. It's like the Stanley Cup playoffs have broken out at 115 Federal Street.

The smart move for the Pirates is to put Cole on the disabled list. He is a huge part of their future. They have millions invested in him. Knowing Cole's mentality as a fierce competitor, he almost certainly will argue against the disabled list. His shoulder didn't look fatigued in his most recent start Tuesday night in San Diego. He was throwing 95 or 96 mph and had a one-hitter through five innings against the Padres before giving up three hits and a run in the sixth and leaving after throwing 100 pitches. But it would be silly to take the slightest risk with Cole and have what could be a minor injury turn into a rotator cuff tear. Hurdle seemed to say as much when he talked of Cole's 1961/3-inning workload last season, which included two postseason starts, and his 762/3 innings this season. He suggested it might be catching up with him and that a step back might be in order. He is absolutely right.

But even if Cole misses just two or three starts, it would be a big setback for the Pirates. He has been their best starter, by far. Take away his 6-3 record and 3.64 ERA, and the rest of the rotation has a 7-22 record and 4.70 ERA.

Edinson Volquez Saturday became the latest starter to fail to get past six innings. He pitched OK, giving the Pirates a chance to win, leaving after six with the team trailing, 4-2. Some would say that was one of the club's better starts, but that would be damning Volquez with praise. He gave up three runs in the fourth inning to allow the Brewers to take that 4-2 lead.

One of these days, the Pirates starters need to give the team some length. They are averaging 5.72 innings per start, which is worse than all but two clubs in the National League. Volquez has gone four starts in a row without getting past the sixth inning. Morton failed to go six in each of his past three starts. Alleged staff ace Francisco Liriano made it through six innings in just one of his past seven starts.

The bullpen has been great of late. It went into the game Saturday with 16 wins -- tied for most in the NL -- and a 2.78 ERA, fourth best in the league. But its workload has been ridiculous. Its 2001/3 innings are the second most in the league after the Padres. Sooner rather than later, the relievers are going to wear out. Usually reliable Justin Wilson had a lousy outing Saturday in the eighth inning, throwing the ball all over the place, walking two batters and hitting a third, giving up four runs to allow the Brewers to roll to a win that stretched their lead to seven games again over the Pirates in the Central Division. The Pirates' 15-5 win Friday night against the Brewers seemed like a lifetime ago.

All that mattered Saturday night was the news about Cole and the potential news about Morton. That was the big story of the day. Make no mistake, it was not a happy story.

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.


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