Bob Smizik: Keys to second-half success

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Two days ago, a story appeared on this site with this headline: Pirates can win NL Central. The operative word in that headline was ‘can.’ Yes, they can. But will they?

Prior to the serious injuries to Yadier Molina of St. Louis and Brandon Phillips of Cincinnati, the Pirates looked to be the fourth-best team in the Central Division. They were a close fourth in a tightly bunched group, but, nevertheless, fourth. How those injuries elevate their chances will be determined considerably by the personnel changes the Cardinals and Reds might make to upgrade their teams.

In the meantime, these are some -- some, not all -- of the keys to second-half success for the Pirates:

Liriano/Cole: One of their 2013 aces -- Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole -- must return to that form. Both would be preferable but just one might be able to push the Pirates to the postseason considering the good pitching they’ve been receiving from Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Edinson Volquez and Vince Worley.

Liriano has been immensely disappointing and continued that trend in his return from the disabled list Sunday. His stuff still looked good, but the results were not there. He walked six, three on four pitches. He also walked Cincinnati pitcher Johnny Cueto. He starts again Friday night when the Pirates play Colorado at PNC Park and another bad performance puts his future with the team in jeopardy. The Pirates can’t continue to send out Liriano -- 4.72 ERA, 1.49 WHIP -- when he’s not giving them a chance to win. They’ve lost five of his past six starts.

Cole has a 3.78 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Last year those numbers were 3.22 and 1.17. In his final seven starts, including two in the postseason, the Pirates were 6-1 and his ERA was 1.46. So he, too, ranks as a disappointment. Cole made only two starts in June because of injury and after his only July start was back on the disabled list. At first it was believed he would be back after the All-Star Game. Now it appears he will miss more time and has an uncertain return date.

One of these two must step up and be the pitcher he was in 2013.

Ike Davis: In his first 129 plate appearance -- April 19-May 30 -- Davis had this batting line: .292/.380/.425 -- .805. The Pirates and their fans thought the team had its first baseman. But in his next 121 plate appearances -- June 1 to the present -- this is his batting line: .173/.322/.243 -- .567. Which is the real Davis? If it is the former, the Pirates will be OK at first base. If it’s the latter, they need to find a replacement.

Davis’ brief MLB history -- full of giddy highs and disappointing lows -- offers no guidebook to his future. He has been a much, much better hitter in the second half than the first, but that’s hardly a guarantee of anything. The Pirates might be shopping for a replacement but more likely they will give Davis more opportunity than most fans believe he deserves.

Gregory Polanco: Which is the real Polanco: The dazzling multi-tooled phenom who looked like a superstar in bloom in his first 78 plate appearances? Or the befuddled, promoted-too-soon kid who looked lost in his most recent 68 plate appearances?

Here are his lines. From June 10-June 26: .338/.416/.441 -- .857

From June 27 to the present: .169/.279/.257 -- .517.

Worse: His strikeout rate in his first 79 plate appearances was 13 percent. In his most recent 68 it is 28 percent.

Polanco can be a driving force toward a playoff berth. He can be a player in need of more seasoning. The latter leaves the Pirates with a gaping hole in right field and at the top of the lineup.

Jeff Locke/Edinson Volquez: Since joining the rotation on a full-time basis on June 8, Locke has a 2.13 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. The Pirates are 5-2 in those seven starts. In his past eight starts, Volquez has a 2.86 ERA and that includes a game in which he gave up eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. The Pirates are 6-2 in those starts. If these two back-of-the-rotation pitchers can continue to perform like aces, the Pirates will be better equipped to handle other disappointments. If they fall back to what most expected from them, others will have to pick up their slack.

None of the above is to say the season rests with the performances of these six players. Obviously, every player is a vital key. If Pedro Alvarez, for example returns to home-run champion form, a continuation of the Davis performance won’t be as detrimental.

Sixty-seven games remain in the season. The Pirates have done well. They need to do better.

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