Bob Smizik: Whose spot does Liriano take?

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In a game that crackled with pennant-race drama, the Pirates wasted a brilliant start by Charlie Morton -- seven innings, no runs, one hit -- and lost, 2-0, to St. Louis on a ninth-inning home run by Matt Adams, the pride of Slippery Rock.

But all was not lost on this July night, as the Pirates fell to third place, one-half game behind the Cardinals and 4 1/2 behind Milwaukee.

Events down on the farm might turn out to be more important than the loss at Busch Stadium.

In a rehab start at Indianapolis, Francisco Liriano, the Pirates ace gone bad, was outstanding. In six innings, he threw 76 pitches, 53 of which were strikes, and allowed no runs, three hits and no walks while striking out eight. He gave up two hits in the first inning, a leadoff double in the second and then retired 15 batters in a row.

Short term, the loss hurt. Long term, Liriano’s performance could turn the night into a winner.

Much will depend on how Liriano feels today, but based on this showing there would not appear to be a need for another rehab start. Blowing away Class AAA hitters is no guarantee he can do the same in the National League, but if this performance doesn’t signal him physically ready to go, what will? It is not out of the question Liriano could be in the rotation this week. It is more likely, though, he'll return immediately after the All-Star Game.

When Liriano, who was on the DL with a strain of his left oblique, returns someone has to go. That is the dilemma that faces Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle in the days ahead. There is no obvious pitcher for Liriano to replace.

Of the pitchers he might have been expected to replace -- Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley -- all have been exceptional in recent weeks. It seems unfathomable the Pirates would take one of them out of the rotation. But it is not likely going to be Morton or Gerrit Cole. That’s true although Cole went on the DL yesterday. But it was more a precautionary move and because of the All-Star break he’ll only miss his next start, which was scheduled for Wednesday.

Locke, of course, would be the easiest to go. He has options and can be sent to the minors without having to pass through waivers. But would the Pirates exile the man who has been their best starter -- a 2.44 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in his past six games -- to make way for Liriano, who was 1-6 with a 4.60 ERA before he was hurt?

A starter could be sent to the bullpen and a reliever could be more easily dispatched. Jared Hughes, who has been pitching very well, has options and could be sent to the minors. Jeanmar Gomez could be released. But would the Pirates want a pitcher who might be needed to start in the weeks or months ahead working out of the bullpen and losing his starter’s endurance? Not likely.

There is recent precedent for demoting a successful pitcher. To make room for Jeff Samardzija, the Oakland A’s sent Tommy Milone to the minors. Milone was 6-3 with a 3.55 ERA. In his most recent start, he pitched six shutout innings.

The Pirates could delay Liriano’s return by a week or two and possibly allow the problem to sort itself out by a bad start or two by one of the pitchers. But the Pirates can’t wait. They have to find out if they have the Liriano of 2013, when he was among the best pitchers in the National League, or the Liriano of 2014, when he’s been among the worst.

If he is not their guy, they have to look long and hard at not just upgrading the rotation but upgrading it with a big -- as in costly -- arm. If he is their guy, the rotation is set.

It looks like the Pirates have two options.

* Send Locke to the minors.

* Cut Gomez and send a starter, Locke, Volquez or Worley, to the bullpen.

Neither option is close to ideal.

* * *

* The Pirates stranded 12 runners and were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position as Morton outpitched St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright. Jordy Mercer was 0-for-3 in RISP situations and Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez 0-for-2.

* A St. Louis error helped turn the course of the game. When second baseman Kolten Wong bobbled Mercer’s grounder with two out in the eighth, it loaded the bases and forced Hurdle to bat for Morton. Gregory Polanco struck out. Tony Watson pitched a scoreless eighth, but Justin Wilson gave up a walk and then the home run to Adams in the ninth. Without Wong’s error, Morton, who threw only 84 pitches, would have pitched the eighth and Watson the ninth.

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