Ron Cook: Pirates lineup needs to shape up, and soon



Pirates general manager Neal Huntington talked at length early Sunday afternoon about the "injuries and adversity" that all teams face during the marathon baseball season. He stopped short of saying the Pirates had to put a shell of their club on the PNC Park lawn against the San Diego Padres and certainly wouldn't use it as an excuse after they were spanked, 8-2, by a San Diego bunch that has owned them here for years. But I have no such reservations. What is happening to the Pirates is ridiculous. I can't remember a run of misfortune like this. Five of their No. 1 draft choices -- Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole -- are either hurt or in a mental fog. And we're surprised when they lose?

The latest bad news came Sunday morning. Manager Clint Hurdle expected his second baseman Walker to play after Walker's back felt good Saturday, but Hurdle had to scratch him when Walker arrived at the park and told him his back was as bad as ever. That meant the Pirates had to play without Walker and McCutchen, who, though still on the active roster, missed his sixth consecutive game because of fractured rib cartilage. Catcher Russell Martin was available in an emergency, but Hurdle wanted to give him the day off after a night game Saturday, better to rest him for the race to the finish line. Alvarez was available off the bench, but what good is he these days? He's no longer even sure he's a third baseman and not a first baseman. The bullpen also was short a pitcher after the team designated Ernesto Frieri for assignment Friday. You might think that's addition by subtraction, but it still meant the club was down a man.

This is not a good time for the Pirates to be short. Have you looked at the schedule? They have a four-game, home-and-home series with the Detroit Tigers starting tonight at PNC Park. The Tigers are leading the American League Central. Then, there are three games in Washington against the Nationals, who have a comfortable lead in the National League East. After that, there are three home games against the Atlanta Braves, who, despite going 1-9 in their previous 10 games before playing the Nationals Sunday night, are in the National League wild-card chase. Then, there are 12 games against National League Central rivals Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati, teams that are 26-13 against the Pirates this season.

Good luck.

"There's never a good time to be short," Hurdle said.

This was after the Padres made it 14 consecutive series wins at PNC Park since the yard opened in 2001. The Pirates are 12-33 here against them, a record of failure so silly that even Hurdle had to joke, "We're due."

Hurdle credited the Padres' "good pitching" and lamented the Pirates' lack of "two-out hits." The truth is his lineup isn't going to beat many teams without McCutchen and Walker. The Pirates scored two runs in the first inning Friday night, were shut out for the next seven and were fortunate to win because starting pitcher Vance Worley was terrific. They scored one run in the first inning Saturday night, were shut out for the final eight and lost, 2-1, wasting a strong performance by starter Francisco Liriano. They scored two runs in the first inning Sunday, then were shut out the rest of the way. They hit .250 for the series and were 2 for 19 with runners in scoring position. Before Gregory Polanco’s first-inning home run Sunday, the Pirates had homered once in their last eight games, which roughly coincides with the time Walker and McCutchen have been out.

It's easy to say the two should be disabled and healthy players added. That makes the most sense, actually. The Pirates can't count on Walker, who twice has tried to come back from his back problems and had a setback each time. They can't take a chance on bringing McCutchen back too soon and losing him for the rest of the season. Huntington called McCutchen's progress "remarkable" and said "he's getting after it. To this point, he's passed every barrier we've thrown at him." But Huntington quickly added, "There is a threat of regression. ... We've still got a big hurdle to clear."

But even if the Pirates put Walker and McCutchen on the disabled list, so what? It's not as if they have solutions at Class AAA Indianapolis. Polanco is their one young star and he's already here. His home run Sunday accounted for the team’s only two runs. Andrew Lambo is hitting the ball well at Indianapolis, but Huntington and Hurdle have to be hesitant to give him another shot after watching him do absolutely nothing in spring training when they begged him to be their first baseman.

If there was any good news Sunday, it was that Cole pitched well in a rehabilitation start for Indianapolis against Rochester. He allowed no runs, one hit and no walks with three strikeouts in six innings, throwing 73 pitches. He could jump back into the rotation this weekend in Washington, although the Pirates want to see how his shoulder and back feel today. They relearned the painful lesson with Walker that you never take anything for granted.

"We'll figure it out," Hurdle said. "We'll have something going [against the Tigers]. I know the guys who are here on the roster will be ready to play."

Added Huntington, "It's a real interesting challenge right now."

Interesting works as an adjective.

So does depressing, unfortunately.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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