Pittsburgh Pirates Break Even In More Ways Than One Against Padres


May 31, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (C) is congratulated after hitting a solo home run during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tempting to deem the Pittsburgh Pirates’ four-game split with the San Diego Padres a success, simply because of the Bucs’ struggles at Petco Park since the facility opened in 2004.

On the other hand, that would be awfully reductive, as what happened 10 or five years ago has little bearing on this year’s club, the one that came to California riding a six-game winning streak.

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That run stretched to seven with a powerful 11-5 victory Thursday night, and it became eight of nine Saturday after a second consecutive effective performance by Charlie Morton.

Entering Sunday evening’s series finale, Pirates starting pitchers had compiled a collective 1.66 earned-run average during that 8-1 surge, which immediately followed the team falling a season-low four games under .500.

But after Jeff Locke‘s seven-run blowup in the series finale, the Pirates (26-24) are still out of the National League playoff portrait as June begins. They remain seven full games behind the first-place Cardinals in the Central, and are fourth in the wild-card pursuit – trailing the Giants (30-22), Mets (28-23) and Cubs (26-22).

So forgive me if I can’t feel too great about this weekend’s treading-water result, even if it was on the road in a ballpark that has traditionally bothered the Bucs.

That’s not to say that there weren’t bright spots in San Diego, a place that rarely lacks for sunlight anyway.

For one, the first three starters of the series – A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Morton – did their jobs well. Burnett’s five-run line Friday was mostly the result of poor defending behind him, Liriano whiffed 11 Padres in six innings Friday, and Morton induced 16 more groundball outs in going seven frames Saturday.

Secondly, I know Petco Park is a lot more hitter-friendly this season for whatever reason, but seeing the Pirates continue drive the ball around the yard during the past four games was nonetheless refreshing.

Homers by Jung Ho Kang, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco in Thursday’s rout hinted at the deep lineup we thought we’d see this season, one that compiled 39 hits during the series. Even Sunday’s letdown featured a solo shot by Polanco, who is showing signs of emerging from a poor start like Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison have done.

However, that 7-1 defeat Sunday reminded of what still ails this team. Ideally, the middling Locke would not remain in the starting rotation at this point, but the continued rehabilitation of Jameson Taillon and the recent elbow injury to Nick Kingham limits the Pirates’ options in terms of possible replacements.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday that he would “sleep on” any decisions about the No. 5 starter’s slot, but when the available pool of talent is highlighted by Vance Worley, there’s no guarantee that fresh blood would lead to better results.

In another pitching concern, Rob Scahill‘s first significant hiccup of an otherwise impressive rookie season ended the Bucs’ seven-game streak Friday. It seems likely that he’ll be fine, but the fact remains that every bullpen citizen except Tony Watson has had their shaky moments.

Perhaps that’s just a fact of life in baseball, as the spectacular results turned in by the 2013 relief corps spoiled all of us for many more years to come. Nevertheless, I’m still not sold on Mark Melancon in a late-inning role, with his diminished stuff leaving him vulnerable.

Emerging ace Gerrit Cole gives the Pirates a chance to forget their lingering worries when he starts opposite Ryan Vogelsong in San Francisco on Monday night.

There are still six games to go on this 11-day trip, and the climb continues for a team that has seen just as much good as bad through two months.

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