Bob Smizik: Penguins looking up, Pirates down

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There’s positive news to report from uptown, where the Penguins, at last, came to play. Not so positive from the North Shore, where the Pirates came to play, but not well -- not well at all.

More on the Penguins later.

The Pirates opened the season with what appeared to be glaring weaknesses at first base and right field. Nothing has changed there. Adding to that -- and alarmingly so -- are what have become ever more significant shortcomings with their starting pitching and at shortstop. Since they do not possess overwhelming talent at their other positions, the Pirates are not in a good situation.

To compound all of that is the hottest team in MLB is in town for a three-game series beginning tonight at PNC Park. The San Francisco Giants have won nine of their past 10. After three with the Giants, the Pirates play three with NL Central favorite St. Louis and then three with the Milwaukee Brewers, the team with the best record in MLB.

This could get worse before it gets better.

About those weaknesses.

• At first base, the Pirates have a combined .738 OPS, which is 12th in the National League and 82 points below the league average (all stats through Saturday).

• In right field, the Pirates have a combined .580 OPS, which is 13th in the NL and 136 points below the league average.

• At shortstop, the Pirates have a combined .393 OPS, which is, not surprisingly, 15th in the NL and a whopping 300 points below the league average.

• Pirates starters, excluding the six earned runs Edinson Volquez allowed in five innings in a 7-2 loss to Toronto on Sunday, are 14th in ERA at 4.42, ninth in WHIP at 1.31, 13th in K/B at 2.41, and 14th in K/9 at 6.85.

The offseason near-stand-pat posture of general manager Neal Huntington has the look of a monumental blunder.

At first base, the Pirates have a solid option against left-handed pitching in Gaby Sanchez, but they almost never see a lefty starter. Ike Davis has a .205 batting average and a .612 OPS since being acquired from the Mets on April 18. Davis has a good track record against right-handed pitching, so there is at least some hope at first base.

That’s not the case in right field for the immediate future, where Travis Snider continues to fail and where Jose Tabata is adequate, at best -- and without power. Utilityman Josh Harrison, who has played well in the past two games, is not a long-term answer. If Gregory Polanco is not going to get the call until June at the earliest, the Pirates need to be looking toward Andrew Lambo for the possibility of immediate help in right field.

Shortstop Jordy Mercer posted some promising numbers in 333 at-bats last season, but much of that was due to an assault on left-handed pitching that he hardly can be expected to duplicate, if and when the Pirates start seeing lefties. Mercer had a higher batting average versus lefties in 2013 than did Miguel Cabrera, the best right-handed hitter, at least, in the world. Mercer figures to better his pathetic .162/.213/.189 -- .402 batting line in the days ahead but there’s no guarantee he’ll return to his 2013 form.

In the past six games, Pirates starters have a 7.71 ERA and all are trending downward. Volquez, who had been the best of the bunch, had his second consecutive bad outing Sunday. Francisco Liriano looks nothing like the ace he was in 2013. Since pitching six shutout innings against the Cubs April 2, Charlie Morton has a 5.40 ERA.

With a doubleheader Thursday forcing the need for a spot starter tonight, the nod goes to Jeff Locke, who has a 5.68 ERA and a .300 BAA in four starts at Class AAA.

The Pirates need to regroup and quickly, but with their upcoming schedule, which has the Yankees after the Giants, Cardinals and Brewers, that will be exceedingly hard to do.

• • •

There was almost nothing not to like about the Penguins’ 3-0 win over the Rangers, which evened the best-of-seven series at 1-1.

Sidney Crosby did not score, stretching his playoff-game streak without a goal to 13, but he led the Penguins with six shots on goal and often looked like a semblance of his old self.

The penalty-killing was strong, critically denying the Rangers on three minor penalties in the first 10 minutes of the game. Marc-Andre Fleury was the toast of the capacity crowd at the Consol Energy Center.

The series resumes tonight at Madison Square Garden. The Penguins need to continue to play with the urgency and focus they showed last night. If not, like the Pirates, they, too, could be in trouble.


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