PITTSBURGH — Since returning home from a 10-day road trip, the Pirates have been holding together a pennant contender with chewing gum and string.
They’ve been playing with a short bullpen and shorter bench, awaiting a definitive answer on the health of reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, the team’s leaders in both home runs and RBIs.
The Pirates won three of their first four games under the self-imposed limits, but fell just short 2-1 Saturday night and then fell far shorter in an 8-2 loss on Sunday afternoon.
The chewing gum and string wore out.
It was bound to happen sometime.
Now, with the Pirates starting a 22-game stretch against nothing but playoff contenders, the situation takes on a different perspective.
“There is never a good time to be short,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “We’re going to go back and see what our plans are moving forward.”
Originally, that plan included Walker. He was supposed to return to the starting lineup Sunday after pinch-hitting Saturday night. But he was unable to go and the lineup was juggled with Jayson Nix taking Walker’s spot at second base and batting seventh.
After the game, Walker said his condition remains day-to-day.
“I’ve seen a specialist and he has seen nothing alarming.” Walker said.
General manager Neal Huntington sees progress with McCutchen, as well. The issue remains measuring how much.
“Andrew has passed every barrier and we’re not babying him,” Huntington said. “He still has one big hurdle to clear.”
Despite the dearth of good news at PNC Park -- the bottom of the ninth inning with Travis Snider, Nix and Chris Stewart due up had fans lining up at the exits -- the news outside of PNC was encouraging.
For those scoreboard watching, the Pirates lost no ground to the Milwaukee Brewers atop the NL Central and stayed ahead of the San Francisco Giants in the wild card race as both teams lost.
St. Louis did stop its skid and leapfrogged the Pirates into second place.
The Pirates’ best news came from another league.
In Indianapolis, Gerrit Cole had an outstanding rehab start for the Indians. He was credited with the victory in a 10-0 decision over Rochester and took a no-hitter into the fifth inning before allowing a single with two outs. He pitched six innings and threw 74 pitches, 49 for strikes and allowed just the one hit.
Until Cole reports how he feels Monday, it’s too soon to measure how positive his outing was, but the numbers certainly looked encouraging. Likewise, any roster moves involving the disabled list may not be announced until Monday.
Regardless of the timing, though, Cole’s return to form and the return of McCutchen and Walker to health would definitely be a positive step in the pennant race.