Ron Cook: Pirates starting pitchers step up at perfect time



Neil Walker is down with a bad back, Andrew McCutchen out -- probably for a significant time -- with a rib cartilage fracture. Someone needed to step up for the Pirates this week against the Miami Marlins. Tuesday night, it was Charlie Morton, who pitched well and deserved better than a no-decision in a loss. Wednesday night, it was Jeff Locke, who had his best start of the season in a win. Thursday night, it was Edinson Volquez, who allowed just one hit in seven shutout innings in a 7-2 win.

Do you see a trend there?

The three strong starts couldn't have come at a better time for the Pirates. They scored 3, 7 and 7 runs to win the series against the Marlins, but the runs figure to get tougher to come by, especially if Walker is out for more than another game or two and McCutchen goes on the disabled list, which could happen today when Pedro Alvarez rejoins the club after a bereavement leave. The San Diego Padres are in town for a weekend series and, despite their 52-61 record, bring with them the lowest staff ERA in the National League. The Detroit Tigers are next for a four-game, home-and-home series with a murderers' row rotation of Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer lined up. After that, it's three games in Washington against the Nationals and the second-best staff, based on ERA, in the National League.

The Pirates starters had better continue to be terrific.

"We keep fighting. That's what it's all about," Volquez said. "We know we've got two guys down, two of our big guys. We've just got to put our head down and keep moving forward."

Morton, who had three bad outings in his previous four starts, set the tone for the series without McCutchen and then Walker by giving up one run and six hits in seven innings and leaving with a 2-1 lead. Locke, who was coming off two bad starts, regrouped after giving up three runs in the first two innings by retiring 16 of the final 17 hitters he faced before leaving after seven innings. Volquez trumped both with his gem, which came after he was mediocre in his first three starts after the All-Star break.

"He had a really good fastball tonight, first and foremost," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Volquez. "The curveball played extremely well. More curveballs than changeups. I thought his pace and his rhythm were as good as we've seen all year, especially with men on base."

It's not as if the Marlins put many on. Volquez walked three -- he also struck out seven -- but the only hit he allowed was a bouncing single by Donovan Solano between third base and shortstop in the fifth inning to put runners on first and second with one out. Volquez got out of the Pirates' lone jam with significant help from right fielder Gregory Polanco, who reached into the first row of the stands down the right-field line to catch Adeiny Hechavarria's fly ball and then threw out Jarrod Saltalamacchia at third base when Saltalamacchia foolishly tried to tag and advance with his team down, 3-0.

Volquez finished strong, pitching a one-two-three sixth and seventh innings with three strikeouts. "Very impressive," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "That was a finishing kick we haven't seen from him this year."

The win was Volquez's ninth of the season. Who saw that coming? Other than maybe Huntington, who was widely ridiculed for signing Volquez to a one-year, $5 million contract after Volquez allowed more runs last season than any pitcher in the National League while pitching for the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers? If you predicted Volquez would be leading the Pirates in wins on Aug. 8, you might want to buy a lottery ticket today. You could be on an amazing roll.

Vance Worley will try to keep the impressive string of starts going tonight when he faces the Padres. He has been really good in seven of his eight starts with the Pirates, including his past three. Francisco Liriano will take the ball Saturday night and try to make it four outstanding starts in a row for him after he struggled through the first half of the season with just one win. Liriano, more than anyone, has the chance to be the staff ace that he was last season. That's especially true with so much doubt surrounding Gerrit Cole's health because of shoulder and back soreness.

"We focus on who we have, not on who we don't have," Hurdle said of the Pirates' resiliency. "We believe we can win a ballgame [every night]. They are collectively a very cohesive group. We just battle."

That's always a little easier when the starting pitchers lead the way.

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 August 6, 2014 9:00 PM

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