Senin, 13 Juni 2011

Pitchers sending SOS for a little run support

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker showed up, as scheduled, Sunday night to cheerfully sign autograph after autograph at the Summer Sports Jam at Stage AE on the North Shore. He's a bigger man than most of us. This was not a day for public appearances. This was a day to hide if you are a Pirates position player.

Is it just me or does it seem as if those days are happening more frequently?

The Pirates were beaten by the New York Mets, 7-0, at PNC Park. It was the eighth time they've been shut out and the 33rd time in 64 games that they've scored fewer than four runs. They are 6-27 in those games.

This loss hurt more than many because of a beauty of a performance by Pirates starter Kevin Correia.

"If you look at the box score, you won't be able to tell how well I pitched," he said. "I was one pitch away from a great one."

Correia had a perfect game before Jason Bay bounced a three-hop single between shortstop and third base with two outs in the fifth inning. He took a shutout into the seventh before giving up one run. He got two quick outs in the eighth and had two strikes on pinch hitter Willie Harris before Harris singled to start a four-run inning.

It's hard to blame Correia too much for the game getting out of hand.

It's hard to pitch when you have to be perfect.

Not that Correia said that. He actually talked about feeling "spoiled" by his run support early in the season: "I've got nothing to complain about. This is the first time I've pitched well and lost."

And you wonder why Correia is so popular among his teammates? The reason goes a long way beyond his eight wins.

It's nice Correia is such a team man, but that doesn't change the fact the Pirates hitters too often have sabotaged their pitchers. The starters have been strong for nearly a month, throwing up a 2.72 ERA in the past 23 games. Sadly for them, the team went 13-10 in those games. It easily could be 34-30 and sitting pretty in the National League Central standings instead of 31-33 and struggling to scratch its way to .500.

Injuries are a big part of it. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez was expected to provide a lot of thump but has been on the disabled list since May 21 with a right quad injury. Josh Harrison has hit OK as his replacement, and Brandon Wood has hit a little better after a terrible start, but neither has provided pop. The team also is down to its fourth and fifth catchers after injuries to Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder and Jason Jaramillo. Dusty Brown and Wyatt Toregas have been virtual automatic outs in their limited playing time.

Too many guys are underachieving. First baseman Lyle Overbay hit for a brief period but has slipped back to a .239 average. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno is in an 8-for-56 slide and is hitting .224. Then, there's the mess in right field. Matt Diaz has no home runs and nine RBIs in 109 at-bats, Garrett Jones is hitting .243 and has one home run in the past 38 games and Xavier Paul is in an 0-for-15 slide.

Even Walker is scuffling. He went 0 for 4 Sunday and is in 0-for-14 and 2-for-23 ruts, which have dropped his average to .251. He has hit just two home runs since May 20. No, he's not your typical cleanup hitter, but is it unfair to expect more?

Only center fielder Andrew McCutchen and left fielder Jose Tabata are stroking the ball.

That's not nearly enough.

"We've just got to stay optimistic and continue to scrap," Walker said. "We've got to keep playing small ball. We've got to keep playing good defense, which we have been. We've got to keep getting good pitching, which we have been."

Small ball? How about an occasional three-run home run?

The Pirates have hit four home runs in 11 games in June, tied with the San Diego Padres for the fewest in the National League. It's no wonder the fireworks operator at PNC Park prematurely set off the explosives when Overbay flied out to the wall in center field in the seventh inning. The poor man has been sitting around a long time with nothing to do. He must have been shocked to see one of the Pirates hit a ball even that far.
So what's the solution?

Getting Alvarez back healthy and playing well is the best thing that could happen to the Pirates. He doesn't appear to be close after aggravating his quad problem. If he doesn't come back strong -- not just this season, but beyond -- the team's building plans will take an enormous hit.

Overbay heated up with the Toronto Blue Jays last summer after a rough two-month start. Maybe he'll do the same here. General manager Neal Huntington is looking for a better option at catcher, but that might be hard to find in a trade. You know Walker is going to hit again. Maybe Jones in right ...

Until then?

The Walker Plan: small ball, defense and pitching.

It's fair to wonder how long the starting pitchers are going to be up to it.

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