Bob Smizik: Polanco’s debut; starting rotation blues

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The performance seldom matches the hype, and so it was with Gregory Polanco, who in his Pirates debut last night at PNC Park proved to be mortal, although a very, very fast mortal.

Polanco had one hit in five at-bats, a line single to left in the third inning. He misplayed a ball in right field that was not an easy chance but one that he should have caught, although an error was not charged.

There were 31,567 tickets sold for the game and most of the buyers were in their seats when Polanco, batting second, hit a towering popup to Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro in his first at-bat. He scored his first run in the third when he came around on Andrew McCutchen’s screaming liner of a home run to center field.

He popped to short again in the fourth, this time with two on and two out. He grounded to second in the seventh and struck out swinging in the ninth.

READ MORE: Polanco finally makes debut for Pirates 

His dazzling speed was in play twice. He was already around third, having started from first, on McCutchen’s home run before being alerted to slow down by coach Nick Leyva. On a routine bouncer to second, he was almost safe. Polanco may or may not be faster than Starling Marte and McCutchen, but because he bats from the left side, he will garner more infield hits than those two.

The crowd was a good one for a Tuesday night against the Cubs. But since team President Frank Coonelly said earlier in the day on The Fan that the advance sale was close to 30,000, the walkup was unusually small for such a massively anticipated game.

Polanco no doubt will have better days and worse days. If the scouts are right, he’s going have a long and prosperous MLB career. When it shifts into high gear is anyone’s guess. It could be tonight. Or next month. Or next year.

What the game served to illustrate was the alarming situation facing the Pirates in terms of their rotation. Starter Francisco Liriano left after throwing three pitches in the fourth inning with a left oblique strain.

The outlook is not encouraging. Manager Clint Hurdle said, ‘’I'm not a doctor, but a left oblique strain, it might be a medical record if a guy can come back in four days and pitch. We'll make a better decision (Wednesday). I think we owe it to the player to see how he feels when he comes in, but I think we need to at least have a Plan B.”

Liriano, who has been massively disappointing this season, gave up a two-run homer to Anthony Rizzo in the first but pitched well after that.

Without Liriano, the Pirates’ rotation will look like this: Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and probably Vance Worley. The final three opened the season in the minors. Worley is still there.

READ MORE: Pirates lose to Cubs in Polanco's debut

In all likelihood, the Pirates will have to hit considerably better than they have to make up for the quality of that rotation.

The next two games against the last-place Cubs highlight the Pirates’ rotation inadequacies. In tonight’s game, Jason Hammel with a 2.53 ERA and an 0.85 WHIP faces Cumpton, who has a 6.51 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. On Thursday, Jeff Samardzija, 2.54 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, faces Volquez 4.17 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.

Worley has been nothing special at Indianapolis. He has a 4.50 ERA, a 1.70 WHIP and a .264 BAA. He was effective in his most recent start -- eight innings, six hits, two runs, one walk, seven strikeouts. What is most attractive about him is he’s had MLB success. He was 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA with Philadelphia in 2011. Since then, however, he is 7-14 with a 5.00 ERA.

Casey Sadler, the losing pitcher last night, was Indianapolis’ most effective starter -- 6-1 with a 2.66 ERA. His last start was May 25. In relief last night, he gave up four runs and four hits in 2 2/3 innings.

Gerrit Cole is scheduled to come off the disabled list June 19. The Pirates are counting the days.

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