Bob Smizik: Pitching problems put Pirates in peril

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In two high-drama, high-stakes games of late August at PNC Park, the precise reason why the Pirates will win anywhere from five to 10 fewer games this season than last came into razor-sharp focus.

And, no, it’s not Neal Huntington and his inability to upgrade the roster.

It took consecutive strong starts from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole to specifically spotlight what has been ailing the Pirates. It's pitching, pitching and pitching.

Imagine if Liriano and Cole had pitched all season like they pitched the past two nights. Imagine if the Pirates bullpen had been a reasonable facsimile of last year’s outstanding group. If that had happened, we wouldn’t be talking about Huntington or the first-base situation or the right-field situation.

If that had happened there’s a good chance the Pirates would be in first place or, at worst, a strong candidate to secure a wild-card invitation to the postseason.

The Pirates didn’t get a win out of Liriano’s start -- as the bullpen faltered -- but they did get a win out of Cole’s start last night -- despite another blown save. But a three-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning by Ike Davis, everybody’s favorite whipping boy, splintered a tie game and gave the Pirates a 5-2 win.

The game was not without its considerable downsides.

* Andrew McCutchen was removed after batting in the fifth inning with left rib discomfort, apparently the result of slamming into the wall while making a catch in the third inning. McCutchen was out 15 days beginning in early August with a rib problem and admittedly was not back to 100 percent,

* Pedro Alvarez, who had hit three home runs in the Pirates three previous games, was removed in the top of the seventh with left foot discomfort.

McCutchen said after the game that his removal was more precautionary than anything and he expects to play tonight. There was no immediate word on the availability of Alvarez or the seriousness of his injury, which was described as a sprain between his toes.

Cole did not allow a hit until two were out in the sixth inning. After giving up a double and a single to start the seventh, he was relieved by Tony Watson, who allowed both runs to score via a sacrifice fly and two more singles. Cole allowed three hits and one walk while striking out nine.

This was the kind of performance the Pirates had expected most of the season from Cole, who had a 1.69 ERA in five starts last September and a 2.45 ERA in two postseason starts. But he was ordinary in the first half of the season and this was only his second start since the All-Star Game because of two stints on the disabled list.

Forget the late-season heroics of 2013. Cole was barely pitching up to his earlier 2013 performances for most of this season. His ERA was up to 3.69 from 3.22 in 2013. Most significantly, his OPS-against this year was .724. Last year it was .638.

It is much the same with Liriano. Before the All-Star Game this year, his ERA was 4.72, a hugely disappointing performance from the man who had been the Pirates ace in 2013. His OPS against last year was .611 This year, even with a strong second half, it is .684.

Imagine where the Pirates would be if Cole and Liriano had performed even close to expectations.

And now imagine where they’d be if Jason Grilli, their ace closer last year, also had performed even close to expectations. Grilli had a 5.14 ERA and three blown saves in April.

Expecting the Pirates to duplicate their outstanding pitching of 2013 would be asking too much. But they haven’t come close. Consider how they have declined from 2013 to 2014 in these pitching categories:

ERA: 3rd to 11th; WHIP: 5th to 11th; BAA 2nd to 12th; OPS-against: 1st to 11th; save percentage: 1st to 11th; K/9: 5th to 14th; K/B: 8th to 14th.

Yes, it would have been nice if Huntington had been more proactive in upgrading the bench, first base and right field and if Davis and Gaby Sanchez had hit better and if Gregory Polanco had not imploded after a great start. But those are comparatively minor points in the story of this season. The team Huntington assembled is fourth in runs and home runs and third in OPS.

The pitching staff he assembled, from which there were reasonable expectations of success similar to 2013, is the reason the Pirates are trailing today in both the NL Central and wild-card standings.

* * *

* With left-handers available in the bullpen, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny opted to stick with right-hander Seth Maness when Davis pinch-hit for Watson. Davis drove a 2-2 changeup deep into the right-field stands for the game-winner. It was his ninth home-run of the season.

* The Pirates scored in the fourth on an infield out by Clint Barmes and in the fifth on Josh Harrison’s 12th home run of the season.

* It has been suggested Harrison doesn’t have the power to be an every-day third baseman. Not based on what he’s done this season. Forget the 12 home runs. He is ninth in the National League in slugging at .494 and first among third basemen. When Alvarez led the National League in home runs last year with 36, he had a .473 slugging percentage.

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