When Charlie Morton threw seven innings of one-run ball at the Chicago Cubs on Monday, it felt like the Pittsburgh Pirates should’ve offered free drinks to everyone in attendance at PNC Park.
A celebration was in order as a Pirates starter had completed seven frames for the first time since May 18, when Morton turned the same trick against the Yankees. Add in the fact that the opposition had scored only one run and Morton’s outing became a serious contender for “start of the year” status.
Morton wasn’t dominant Monday, just effective and efficient. Those two words haven’t been used often enough to describe Pittsburgh starters this season, and Morton’s outlier aside, there isn’t much hope for optimism in that area.
With young fireballer Gerrit Cole on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder fatigue and Francisco Liriano likely headed for the same fate after suffering an oblique strain Tuesday night, that’s two-fifths of an already staggering rotation with legitimate health concerns. (UPDATE: Liriano was placed on the DL Wednesday afternoon.)
Brandon Cumpton gets the start Wednesday evening as the Pirates swim upstream against the injury current, a run of poor fortune that strikes just as the schedule softens. Counting this ongoing four-game home set with the Cubs, Pittsburgh has eight series in a row against losing teams.
Before you say it, I realize the Pirates themselves are below .500, sitting at 30-34 following Tuesday’s 7-3 loss. But if they have aspirations of making up the four games that separate them from a playoff position, now would be an opportune time to climb.
We could project that the Bucs would take advantage of weaker opponents in the coming weeks if they had Cole and Liriano on the field and performing within reasonable expectations. However, it appears the Pirates won’t have their presumed top two starters for the next 10-15 days.
Vance Worley, who has torn up the Triple-A International League this season, is a likely call-up if Liriano can’t make his next start. In the meantime, there will be added pressure on Morton, Cumpton, Edinson Volquez and the entire Pittsburgh bullpen to maintain or raise their respective levels.
Then again, perhaps the Pirates’ offense – boosted by Tuesday’s debut of outfield prospect Gregory Polanco – will continue its modest upward trend. Reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen has located his power stroke, with five homers and six doubles in nine June games, a surge that bodes well for the entire lineup.
Whoever it may be, the Pirates need more superlative performances if they’re going to compensate for a sudden lack of pitching depth.