Pirates staff: We won’t let team down in 2nd half
By Bob Cohn
Published: Sunday, July 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Sunday, July 15, 2012
Lurking among the merry Zoltan signs and good vibrations cast off by the Pirates' best start since 1991 is an inconvenient but appropriate item of concern: Will the pitching hold up this time or again hasten their fall from first place?
The question hangs like a misguided curveball, but the club would prefer to let it go. The Pirates believe the issue has been thoroughly examined, dissected and addressed, and now it's time to move forward. “It's not on our minds,” pitching coach Ray Searage said.
In other words, coaches coach and players play. But fans worry, and last year's stunning pitching collapse, the primary cause of the Pirates' screaming, G-force descent during the final two months, remains fresh among the irksome memories harbored by a long-suffering fan base wary of bear-hugging success.
Such is the case once more because the Pirates again are getting great pitching. Led by starters James McDonald and A.J. Burnett and a solid bullpen, they were 11 games over .500 with a 3.48 ERA — fifth-best in baseball — coming out of the All Star break. But wouldn't you know it? The pitchers gave up 10 runs to Milwaukee on Friday in their first game back, raising a chorus of uh-ohs among Pirates fans.
“I know a lot of people are wondering, ‘Are we gonna break down? Are we gonna be tired?' ” right-hander Jeff Karstens conceded.
Of course, no one knows the answer for sure. “I don't have a crystal ball,” Searage said. But he later added, “We will be better this year.”
“I think this year's ballclub is totally different,” Karstens said.
Last season the Pirates were tied for the National League Central lead before losing a 19-inning game in Atlanta on Jerry Meals' blown call in the small hours of July 27. Some tried to pin the club's subsequent implosion on that single game.
The Pirates split their next two games with the Braves and moved to Philadelphia, where everything began to fall apart. After getting swept by the powerful Phillies, the Pirates returned home and got swept by weaklings Chicago and Houston. Ten straight losses. The Pirates fell from 11⁄2 to 10 games out while being outscored, 82-37. The team ERA soared from 3.32 — a remarkable number considering the club's MLB worst 5.00 ERA in 2010 — to 3.73.
The Pirates were finished, kaput, done. After reaching a high-water mark of 53-47 on July 25, they closed at 19-43 to extend their record streak of consecutive losing seasons to 19. The pitching meltdown was utter and complete. From the start of the Philly series to season's end, the staff ERA was 5.33. In the 10 games in which Pirates opponents scored 10 runs or more in 2011, eight came after July 28. Of the pitchers who worked significant innings, only McDonald had a lower ERA after the break.
No one needs to be reminded. The pitching question was on the organization's collective mind during the offseason, resulting in stepped-up workouts, the departure of free agent Paul Maholm and the addition of veterans Burnett and Erik Bedard, plus a new readiness in dealing with stretches of physical and mental fatigue and a sense that simply surviving the hardships of 2011 will pay off in 2012.
“We added veteran experience to the rotation, No. 1, and the guys that are coming back have been through it,” said former minor league pitching coordinator Jim Benedict, a special assistant to general manager Neal Huntington. “They've been through this before, and that's the biggest reason they'll be there at the end.”
“We've definitely been through it, and we'll make adjustments accordingly,” Searage said. “I will keep an eye on innings and the days off in between. Pitch counts will remain the same, and I'll keep an eye on the daily work routine.”
The adjustments will pertain to “running, conditioning, backing off a little bit,” Searage said. “When to give them a day of rest, when to throw in the bullpen — maybe on the third day (after a start) instead of the second day. And maybe it will be a light one just to keep them sharp. The pitch counts in the pens will probably be diminished a little bit.”
Last year starters McDonald, Karstens and Charlie Morton set career highs in innings. So did relievers Jose Veras, Chris Resop, Daniel McCutchen and Tony Watson. Maholm and starter Kevin Correia got hurt and missed the last 11⁄2 months, and Morton was bothered by a hip injury that would require offseason surgery (he also had Tommy John elbow surgery after nine starts this season).
“There were a lot of firsts for us last year,” Resop said. “A lot of the relievers and starters were getting into appearances and innings they've never reached before. There's a huge difference between five months of baseball and six months. At the end of five months, your body feels like it's shot. And it's one of those things, the fittest and the strongest survive, mentally, physically and everything, to get to that last month.”
“You know what to expect now,” Searage said. “Last year it was like, ‘Holy geez, what's happening?' They had never been to that spot before. But now they have a better understanding how to keep their bodies in better shape and how to communicate with us to be stronger longer.”
A pressing matter
One pitcher expected to be stronger than last year is Karstens, who made three starts in April before landing on the disabled list for more than two months with shoulder soreness and a hip pointer. He has thrown just 55 innings between his minor league rehab assignments and the Pirates. After a rocky outing coming off the DL, his next two starts were exceptional.
“He had a timeout,” Benedict said. “That should help him in the second half. He's got fresh legs now.”
As things spiraled out of control last season, the pitchers made it tougher on themselves.
“They pressed,” Searage said. “They wanted to continue what they had going, and it just wasn't happening. They tried harder and harder, and as you continue to do that you dig yourself deeper. They know what they went through. It's not gonna happen, to a degree, hopefully, this year.”
Karstens, who has a slender build at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, typified the grind of the 2011 season. His 3.34 ERA led the starters, but his ERA after the All-Star break was more than two runs a game higher.
“Everybody in this clubhouse works their butts off,” he said. “I don't think it was too much the physical aspect. I just think we got away from who we are. After we went through that losing streak, we tried to do more than we were doing early in the year. That's not who we are and who we've been. We started pressing a little bit. We started trying to pitch better than we had been.
“It's one of those things where you should let things take care of themselves,” Karstens added. “I think mentally we drained ourselves by trying to do too much.”
The Pirates are convinced that won't be the case this season. Led by All-Star Andrew McCutchen and a resurgent Pedro Alvarez, the hitting looks stronger than last year, which should lessen the burden on the pitchers. A red flag might appear to be Burnett's second-half slumps with the Yankees the past few years, but he seems to be transformed from his unhappy days in New York. Bedard, another poor second-half pitcher (when he manages to avoid injury), has had a lackluster first half. The Pirates hope he can only improve.
“It's an entirely different pitching staff,” Correia said. “We had a good team (last season), but it wasn't as deep as we are now. This year's team is set up to be a lot deeper.”
Said Resop, “Sometimes experience is what you need in this game. Sometimes it takes a couple of years for players to figure themselves out, who they are, and not try to be someone they're not. As a whole, one through 25, we're a much better team.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7810.
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