Bob Smizik: Is another collapse looming?

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Is Aug. 13, 2014 destined to be a date that will live in Pirates infamy?

Will it be recalled as the dawn of another monumental collapse by the Pirates, their third in four years?

Those are fair questions in view of the Pirates’ 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves last night -- their sixth straight defeat, a streak that began on Aug. 13.

On Aug. 12, the Pirates were nine games over .500, 1 1/2 games off the NL Central lead and in first-place in the wild-card standings. Today they are three games over .500, six games behind first-place Milwaukee and in fourth-place in wild-card standings.

It’s not surprising that this slump, coming as it has at such a critical point in the season, brings to mind the collapses of the recent past.

• On July 25, 2011, the Pirates were 53-47, in first place in the NL Central and the talk of baseball. They lost 43 of their final 62 and finished 24 games out of first place.

• On Aug. 8, 2012, the Pirates were 63-47 and 2 1/2 games out of first. They lost 36 of their final 52 to finish 18 games out of first place.

The Pirates of 2014 are a better team than the 2011 and 2012 editions. They have the success of 2013 to bolster them and much more than that they expect to have Andrew McCutchen in the lineup tonight for the first time since Aug. 3.

In other words, a collapse isn't exactly looming. Which is not to say it still might not happen.

The mere presence of McCutchen in the lineup should help his teammates even if it takes a game or two for him to regain his stroke. If shortstop Jordy Mercer, out of the starting lineup for the past four games, is not far behind that will help the Pirates even more.

But offense has not been this team’s problem. Despite the absences of McCutchen and Neil Walker -- three at bats from Aug. 1 through the 14th -- the Pirates lead the National League in runs since the All-Star break. The also are second in slugging and on-base, trailing only the Coors Field-aided Colorado Rockies.

It’s the pitching that has been shaky this month. In August, Pirates pitchers are ninth in ERA, 10th in WHIP and BAA, 13th in K/B and 14th in save percentage. When Gerrit Cole returns to the rotation later this week, he will be an upgrade over Charlie Morton, who was put on the disabled list Sunday. But Cole has not been the dominant pitcher that he promised to be based off his late 2013 performance.

The bullpen, of course, has been terrible of late. Its August ERA is 4.64 and, as is well known, the team’s top two relievers, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, blew saves Saturday and Sunday against Washington.

It was starting pitching that undid the Pirates last night. The Braves scored six times in the first inning -- with the first two batters homering -- against Vance Worley. Worley settled down and did not allow another run through the sixth. But the Pirates, after scoring single runs in the second, third and fourth, were shutout in the final five innings.

After the Pirates made it 6-3, a special kind of victory seemed possible. That would have been the kind of comeback win that could revitalize a downtrodden team. But it wasn’t to be. The Pirates will have to find their inspiration elsewhere -- if at all.

This team needs a win -- actually, many of them -- and soon.

•••

• Starling Marte had a monster night, two home runs and a double. Since coming off the disabled list Aug. 5 (concussion), Marte is batting .373 with an OPS over 1.000 . . . Neil Walker also homered.

• Gregory Polanco was hitless in five at bats. Since opening his career by batting .338 in his first 16 games, Polanco is batting .209 (37-for-177). With McCutchen due back tonight, it will be interesting to see which outfielder goes to the bench -- Polanco or Travis Snider, who had two hits last night and is batting over .300 in August.

• Pedro Alvarez debuted at first base and looked like a man playing the position for the first time. His failure to snag an off-target but catchable throw from Walker in the first inning, which would have completed an inning-ending double play, allowed two runs to score. Later in the game, he ranged too far to his right to field a ball and the Braves got an infield single out of it. At the plate, he was 0-for-4 with a strike out.


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