Bob Smizik: Hope fading for Pirates

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The stand-pat strategy of general manager Neal Huntington is fair game in critiquing the recent losing play of the Pirates. So is the suspect strategy of manager Clint Hurdle. But with a third-straight loss on their record there is a clear overriding factor in the Pirates decline: Their players aren't good enough.

That's not exactly breaking news and has been a theme on this site for most of the season. The Pirates have done an admirable job in staying close. But as the days of the season grow fewer, staying close isn't enough.

Fans will scream, and not without legitimacy, that Huntington added nothing to the team at the trade deadline and only mediocre reliever John Axford in August. But another theme of this site is the fact that all trades do not produce good results. Changing players can have a negative impact on a team and a prime case in point is the Oakland Athletics. They were big players in the trade markets in July and the results have been a losing record. Which means Huntington isn't necessarily the bad guy for not adding players.

The Pirates lost to the St. Louis Cardinals last night, 6-4, at Busch Stadium. They now trail the first-place Cardinals by four games in the Central Division. They remain in fourth place in the National League wild-card standings.

Hopes in the Central Division might be fading fast -- a win in the series finale against the Cardinals this afternoon is imperative -- but the wild-card remains a real chance.

But the players -- yes, they are the team assembled by Huntington and managed by Hurdle -- have to do better in the remaining 24 games.

Jeff Locke, for example, was not close to being up to the challenge last night. He couldn't get an out in the fourth inning as the Cardinals scored three times to break a 2-2 tie.

There's no figuring Locke. He was among the best pitchers in the National League in the first half of last season and among the worst in the second half. This season, which began for him in the minors, there have been flashes of the first-half brilliance and an almost equal dose of the second-half misery.

Locke joined the rotation full-time in June and in that month and the first three starts of July, he had a BB/9 rate of 1.07, which is well above outstanding. But since that third July start, his BB/9 is 4.68, which is horrible. He walked five in three innings last night.

Although it's hardly just Locke. In the two defeats prior to this game, staff aces Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole could not hold late leads. And in both of those games, the bullpen shared culpability.

The Pirates are close enough in the wild-card race that a strong finish could get them to the postseason. The fact the 13 games they play after today -- six with the Cubs, four with the Phillies and three with the Red Sox -- are against losing teams gives them a real window of opportunity.

Win or lose in the series finale with the Cardinals today, the Pirates have hope. But the players on the current active roster must do all of the heavy lifting to get this team where it wants to go. Based on the results of the first 138 games of this season, that's not encouraging.

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