Bob Smizik: What a difference a month makes

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The agony of April has given way to the joys of May. The team that looked headed for a losing season last month is moving back toward contention this month.

All of which means it’s still way too early to be making any kind of predictions on what the 2014 season will bring for the Pirates.

But there is no mistaking that things are looking better. The Pirates were 10-16 in April, a 100-loss pace. They are 6-4 in May, a 97-win pace. The real Pirates, obviously, lie somewhere in between those two projections. But based on recent play, which includes four straight wins, they are trending more toward the latter than the former.

Their 4-3 win over St. Louis Cardinals last night at PNC Park was their second consecutive win over the NL Central favorite, who are having significant struggles of their own. On paper, the Cardinals looked too strong for the division. On the field, they are hardly invincible.

The only negative of the Pirates recent play has been the starting pitching but even that is a bit of a positive. The Pirates got below-average starts from Francisco Liriano, their best pitcher last season, and Edinson Volquez, their best pitcher last month, on Friday and Saturday, which is the negative. The positive is they won both of those games.

Volquez gave up three runs in the second inning and was lifted in the fifth when, with two outs, he gave up two singles and then a walk to load the bases. Jared Hughes got the final out and began a stretch of outstanding pitching by the bullpen. In 4 1/3 innings, the bullpen -- Hughes, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon -- allowed no runs and three hits while walking one and striking out six.

That pitching made a four-run Pirates fourth -- with three of the RBIs coming on balls that did not leave the infield -- stand up for the win.

It was much the same the night before when Liriano gave up three runs on five hits and four walks in five innings. Neil Walker’s three-run homer in the eighth rallied the Pirates from a 4-3 deficit to a 6-4 win as Watson and Melancon pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth, respectively.

The Pirates go for a sweep of the Cardinals tonight with Charlie Morton pitching against Shelby Miller.

There’s no question the offensive turnaround has been the difference maker for the Pirates this month. Through games of Friday this month, the Pirates were second in the National League in runs and OPS only to the Coors Field-aided Colorado Rockies. Their .818 OPS was 82 points higher than that of third-place Cincinnati.

Six players had a May OPS over .800 -- Walker, Gaby Sanchez, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison. Starling Marte and Ike Davis. Pedro Alvarez wasn't far off at .785. Walker was second in the league in RBIs with 10 and 11th in OPS at 1.086.

If the starting pitching starts to approach last year’s level of success, the Pirates could be formidable.

But the first 10 days of May are a small sample of the season. The Pirates have 126 games remaining. It figures to be a while before anyone has an precise handle on just how good -- or how bad -- this team is.

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