Bob Smizik: All in all, a good trip

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If the Pirates are to go on and become a serious contender in the National League Central -- and in parity-laced MLB that certainly is on the table -- there’s a good chance they’ll look back on what some prophesied as the Road Trip of Doom as being a key to that success.

The 10 games against the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres were cited as games that might mark an end to the team’s contender status for 2014. Instead, the Pirates return to PNC Park tomorrow night reinvigorated by six wins in 10 games as they stay not only in the thick of the early wild-card race but in contention in the division.

That might sound a bit extreme for a team three games under .500 (28-31) and if the Pirates are measured against the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. But they trail the division-favorite St. Louis Cardinals by only 2 1/2 games. There’s a reasonable expectation the Brewers, who are two games under .500 since the end of April, will fall back and St. Louis will be the team to beat.

After a terrible start, the Pirates are 16-11 in their past 27 games. If they can continue to play at that pace -- neither an easy nor an unreasonable goal -- they can stay in the race and challenge for the postseason.

All that said, those hopes took a blow last night when Francisco Liriano, absolutely critical to the team’s future success, threw up the strangest of games -- a one-hit stinker -- in a 3-2 loss to the Padres. Five days after a strong start against the powerful Dodgers lineup, Liriano threw 109 pitches in five innings against the Padres. He allowed only one hit, a bunt, but he walked seven in an extremely disappointing performance.

The Padres scored their runs on a sacrifice fly to the second baseman, a throwing error and a bases-loaded walk. They had only one hit for the game -- the bunt single in the first.

Liriano was ill-served by his defense, particularly by Josh Harrison, who was again heroic at the plate with two doubles and a triple. But a mental and a physical error by Harrison, playing second base, in the first inning helped the Padres score twice.

But after the two poor games in New York, that was the only major downer of the trip. The Pirates got improved starting pitching from Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez, much better work from their bullpen, which is close to 2013 form, and plenty of timely hitting.

Some recent positives:

• In his past seven games, Harrison is 14-for-31 (.452). His batting line is: .317/.349/.520 -- .869. He leads Pirates regulars in batting average and slugging percentage.

• Jordy Mercer is 11-for-17 (.647) in the past four games to raise his batting average from .190 to .226.

• In his past nine games, Pedro Alvarez is 11-for-33 with two home runs and six RBIs.

• Since coming off the disabled list, closer Jason Grilli has made six appearances (six innings) and allowed one run, three hits and struck out 10.

• Reliever Tony Watson has not allowed a run in 18 appearances (18⅔ innings).

Some negatives:

• Since moving into the No. 4 spot in the lineup on May 23, Ike Davis is 8-for-38 (.211) with three RBIs. He is 3-for-27 (.111) in the past nine games. It’s good that Davis draws walks and gets on base, but he needs to be more productive in the four slot.

• In his past 21⅔ innings, Liriano has walked 14.

• Since May 7, Starling Marte is 13-for-74 (.176) with 23 strikeouts.

• And the biggest bummer of them all: According to published reports, and contrary to other published reports, the Pirates have no plans to promote Gregory Polanco for the start of the home stand Friday  night.

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