Bob Smizik: No. 1 lineup = No. 7 loss

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Optimism was in full bloom as the Pirates took the field against the Atlanta Braves last night at PNC Park. Not only was the long-awaited return of Andrew McCutchen, out since Aug. 3, at hand, but shortstop Jordy Mercer, out since Thursday, also was in the lineup. Additionally, streaking Travis Snider was in right field instead of the slumping Gregory Polanco.

The Pirates were at full strength, ready to end their losing streak and make a late-August charge. And maybe not.

The No. 1 lineup failed to inspire Francisco Liriano, who, after an outstanding string of starts, pitched a stinker, and like the night before this one was over early.

Final score: Atlanta 11, Pirates 3.

Losing streak: Seven

Hope: Fading

Reality: Not good, but probably not quite so bad as some are suggesting. The Pirates are still hanging around. When a team is hanging around, there’s always hope, particularly in the era of two wild-cards. But the Pirates need some wins and they won’t be easy to come by in the days ahead with another game against Atlanta tonight and then three at Milwaukee on the weekend and three vs. St. Louis at home.

The news of the night:

• Snider further staked his claim to the right-field job with two hits. Since May 31, he is batting .323 (42-for-126) with an OPS over .900. By comparison, since June 27, Polanco is batting .209 with a .594 OPS. Snider deserves a long look the remainder of the season and if he continues to perform well, he should -- as has been suggested by others -- be given a first baseman’s mitt and sent to play winter ball. Polanco is the Pirates right fielder of the future. But that future could also include Snider.

• McCutchen’s return, based both on final score and individual performance, was not exactly triumphant. He was hitless in four at bats, not an unexpected outcome for a player out of the lineup for 15 days. It’s not like he was tearing it up when he was injured. His 0-for-4 leaves him 13-for-61 (.213) since the All-Star Game with no homers and six RBIs.

• Liriano, who had a 1.89 ERA in his previous six starts, was whacked seemingly at will by the Braves. They accumulated nine runs (seven earned), 10 hits and three walks in Liriano’s four-plus innings. Liriano looked to be the Pirates ace in the important games ahead. Not only doesn’t he look like an ace, there might not be important games ahead. Atlanta scored one in the second, three in the third, one in the fourth and five in the fifth.

• Ike Davis returned to first base after Pedro Alvarez started Monday and drove in a meaningless run in the ninth. For now, Davis appears to the lesser of two evils in the first-base competition against right-handed pitching. After getting briefly hot after the All-Star Game, Davis has cooled considerably. In August, he is batting .200 (8-for-40) with one homer and six RBIs. Alvarez has been slumping badly since the end of June. In August, he is batting .176 (6-for-34) with no homers and four RBIs. Alvarez’s hapless defensive performance Monday could not have impressed manager Clint Hurdle.

• The first-place Brewers won their fifth straight and ninth of their past 12 with a 6-1 win over Toronto. They now hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates.

• If the Pirates take a look over their shoulder they’ll see the surprising Miami Marlins, who won for the eighth time in 11 games last night, coming hard. The Marlins, who beat Texas, 4-3, are one-half game behind the Pirates in the wild-card standings. St. Louis and San Francisco currently hold down the two wild-card slots. Atlanta is one-half game behind them. The Pirates are 2 1/2 back and the Marlins three.

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