Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Unbelievable win doesn't solve Pirates' issues

June 20, 2016

Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco makes a running catch on a ball hit by the Giants' Buster Posey for a double play during the ninth inning Monday, June 20, 2016, at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

Clint Hurdle tossed out a question after a 1-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Monday. One he said he shared with his players, as well.
Do you want to believe what you saw the first eight weeks of the season (pretty good) or the past three weeks (really bad)?
“We can't control what other people believe,” Hurdle said. “I know what we believe.”
I'm not sure what to believe, but I know this: I can't believe what I saw Monday night.
I can't believe Jeff Locke outdueled Madison Bumgarner, and I can't believe Erik Kratz hit a baseball over a fence (albeit after dropping out of Angel Pagan's glove). Kratz hadn't homered since Aug. 18, 2014.
The Pirates, having lost 10 of their previous 11, beat the hottest team in baseball to start a critical eight-game homestand, and the recipe was straight out of the Hurdle cookbook: strong start, efficient bullpen, key hit, good defense — notably Gregory Polanco's running catch of Buster Posey's liner in the ninth and subsequent one-hop throw to double up Brandon Belt.
Good stuff, all of it, but major issues remain.
Coming into the season, Neal Huntington absolutely deserved the benefit of the doubt regarding his curious offseason pitching moves. That is what the second-most wins in baseball over three years will earn you.
But now, 70 games into a disappointing season? The benefit is fading. The doubt is growing. And as a Stanley Cup-addled region turns its eyes toward PNC Park, a previously unthinkable question springs to mind, one colleague Travis Sawchik broached in a blog Monday:
Will the Pirates be sellers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline?
Look at the schedule through mid-July (Lots of Giants, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Nationals, plus an AL trip out west). Look at this rotation. Look at the injury list.
It would be one thing if the Pirates had been a break or two from winning a bunch of these games. Instead, before Monday, they were getting their brains bashed in night after night.
It feels like they've been going into too many games with little chance. On Monday morning, the listed matchups for the first two games of this series looked like this.
Game 1: Locke vs. Bumgarner
Game 2: Nobody vs. Johnny Cueto.
At this point, Nobody is preferable to Juan Nicasio, but you get the point. What a shame that the deepest lineup of the Hurdle era — despite its struggles this month — could go to waste on account of brutal pitching.
Is it possible that Huntington, juiced on hubris from overseeing so many pitcher turnarounds, reached the point where he thought he could take anyone — me, you, Nick Bonino — and turn him into an All-Star?
“I know if I were a pitcher,” Huntington said in December, “I'd be paying us to come pitch here.”
J.A. Happ had other thoughts. He preferred that somebody pay him. Huntington did not aggressively chase Happ (8-3, 3.41 ERA in Toronto), opting for Nicaso and Ryan Vogelsong as rotation options and filling the bullpen with every Luebke and Lobstein he could find.
I love pitching coach Ray Searage, but you can only ask a man to do so much. Especially after your other pitching guru, Jim Benedict, took his act to Miami.
In the cases of Arquimedes Caminero and Francisco Liriano, you wonder if some of Searage's magic spells reversed themselves. Gerrit Cole, despite a good ERA, wasn't missing many bats before he was injured. Jon Niese's ERA is speeding toward Nicasio Land. It doesn't help that catcher Francisco Cervelli is on the shelf or that Andrew McCutchen is unrecognizable.
The division is long gone. The once-hated second wild card might yet become a blessing. If the Pirates don't make something of this homestand, however, we'll be one step closer to perhaps saying goodbye to Mark Melancon, John Jaso and others (not McCutchen ... right?).
The scariest part of this whole thing is how fast and far the Cubs have separated themselves from the Pirates. Not just in the NL Central this season but overall.
The snapshot says the Pirates are 1-8 against the Cubs and have been outscored 58-21. The big picture says the Cubs have way more money, a rabid thirst to spend it and just as much young talent, if not more, than the Pirates.
Still, there is time to make something of the season. Time to perform a Penguins-like resurrection. Will it happen?
At this point, after this game, I'm not sure what to believe.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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