Pirates need pitching to key turnaround
Manager Hurdle is optimistic, but things won't get better unless arms improve
CHICAGO -- Nothing makes most managers tap dance quicker than questions about their closers. They know a controversy is never more than a couple blown saves away, and it's a dreary day when they have to make a change, especially with a guy they really respect.
Clint Hurdle did that on Friday at Wrigley Field, publicly pulling 2013 All-Star Jason Grilli out of the role he thrived in when the Pirates were ending their postseason drought. It wasn't exactly how he wanted to start his weekend. But Hurdle was diplomatic in his explanation.
"There are times we're all best served by just getting out of the oven," Hurdle said about Grilli, who has blown four of his 15 save chances this year. "There's no safety net for a closer. Never is. When they do the job, they're supposed to, and when they don't it's a violation of baseball policy. He won't have to deal with that for a while, which in and of itself will help."
This was vintage Hurdle. It's also typical that he looks right past the losing record to see his pitching-challenged team solving its problems and restoring the excitement it created last summer.
Hurdle is candid enough to admit that he has trained himself to put his best face forward. It's part of the organizational management plan.
"We look for guys who have had success, and we look for guys who have had failure," Hurdle said. "We look for Pirates -- people who are ready to turn their back on everything behind them and move forward. Here it's a belief that everything starts with a thought, a positive thought. I need to model behavior I want to instill in others every day. Not just when we play well, [but] every day."
In this case, it helps that Hurdle sincerely believes his team is better than the 35-38 record it has after Friday's 6-3 loss at Wrigley Field.
"It's been a gritty, grinding season for us," Hurdle said. "A lot has gone on for [this to be] just the second or third week of June, which has made it really fun."
In Pittsburgh, the story of the season has been the wait for super prospect Gregory Polanco, who was hitting .347 with a .945 OPS and 15 stolen bases in 62 games when he was finally promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 10. But it was hardly like right-field play was why the Bucs went 12-23 from April 11 through May 20, falling eight games behind Milwaukee in the National League Central.
The troubling issue is something far more essential.
"It's been all about pitching," Hurdle said. "The reason for my optimism is that we've found a way to stabilize our rotation the last couple of weeks. Actually, our June has been very good off the mound. May got better, and April was hard for us all over the place. Each month, our pitching has incrementally gotten better."
Entering Friday's game, the Pirates were allowing 4.3 runs per game, surprisingly the third most in the NL (what does that say about pitching dominance in the modern game?), and their starting rotation had a 4.26 ERA, the third highest in the league. The Bucs held opponents to only 3.56 runs per game last season, when the rotation's 3.50 ERA was the fourth best in the NL.
Some saw the falloff coming when A.J. Burnett left as a free agent last winter, in part because the since-released Wandy Rodriguez took his payroll slot by exercising a player option to return. To be as strong as they had been they would have to get a second consecutive strong season from 2013 revelation Francisco Liriano, and he was 1-6 with a 4.60 ERA when he went on the disabled list with a strained oblique last week.
It's an oversimplification to stop there, but that tells you most of what you need to know about how the pitching staff went from excellent to suspect. The only caveat necessary to add is that it didn't help at all that Gerrit Cole was sidelined with shoulder fatigue and top prospect Jameson Taillon, projected to contribute heavily in the second half, was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery.
So Hurdle's team soldiers on with a rotation of Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton and Vance Worley.
One potential saving grace is that nobody in baseball should have a better defensive outfield, not with reigning NL MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen flanked by Starling Marte and the 22-year-old Polanco.
"I'm blessed to watch those three men run around the outfield, because I don't know how many managers get that opportunity," Hurdle said. "You look at three gifted athletes in a Marte, a McCutchen, a Polanco from a defensive lens first. Having three center fielders. That's all their best positions, so you ask two to move and to see how that works out. I believe they're going to posse up to be an incredibly good unit with time."
Asked specifically about Polanco, Hurdle had a quick reply. "What a gas," he said.
Polanco opened Friday's game with a line single to center field, giving him hits in all 10 games he has played in the Major Leagues. That's the longest streak starting a career for a Pirates player and the longest in the Majors since the Twins' Glenn Williams did it for 13 straight in 2005. The longest in the post-World War II era is 16 in a row by Juan Pierre in 2000 when he was playing for the Rockies.
Polanco has most often been compared to Darryl Strawberry, which shouts about his power potential. But the young Straw also ran well, and so it is with Polanco. He joins McCutchen and Marte to give Pittsburgh a team that can beat you with its speed.
"There's energy in the lineup," Hurdle said. "There's a different look at the top. There's more danger involved."
There had better be.
Polanco set a poor tone by getting picked off first base in the first inning on Friday, and Ike Davis looked overly litigious when his response caused Hurdle to appeal that John Baker was blocking the plate after the Cubs perfectly executed a tricky rundown situation. But it was again starting pitching that was the Bucs' downfall, with the Cubs pounding Morton for five runs in the third inning, three on a Starlin Castro homer and two on an Anthony Rizzo double.
"For me it's still a really encouraging time to be a Pirate, to be a Pirate fan as well," Hurdle said.
Unfortunately it's not a bad time to hit against the Pirates, either.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.