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Kovacevic: Pirates' hopes still at arm's length

| Sunday, April 21, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez throws during the second inning against the Braves on Sunday, April 21, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jonathan Sanchez takes the field at the start of the game against the Braves on Sunday, April 21, 2013, at PNC Park.

Clint Hurdle lovingly calls it “chicken wire, duct tape and spit” anytime his Pirates cobble together an exceptional effort through unexpected means.

You know, like squeezing three salvageable innings out of Jonathan Sanchez, replacing him with minor league castoff Jeanmar Gomez, getting a big double play out of rookie Justin Wilson and a big strikeout from struggling Jared Hughes, then finding the winning run off a Clint Barmes infield roller.

Pirates 4, Braves 2.

“We're capable of playing very good baseball, and we did that on this homestand,” Hurdle said of a 7-2 surge at PNC Park that will lead nicely into a 10-game road trip. “We pitched, we hit ... we did it all.”

He's right, of course. And the sentiment was echoed through a growingly confident clubhouse.

When I mentioned the Pirates' tough early schedule to reliever Jared Hughes, he came back, “In our minds, it's not like, ‘Aw, we've got a bad schedule.' No, forget that. They've got a bad schedule because they've got to come play us.”

Neat, huh? And you know, maybe if you throw in some glue and gumbands with that wire and spit, these Pirates really can hold all this together.

But probably not.

Not with the roster as presently constituted, anyway.

I don't want to be that guy here. Really don't. There's a lot to like about this 10-8 start, not least of which is taking three of four from a previously ablaze Atlanta outfit. The hitting has come alive, even Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have been terrific. And the bullpen's been borderline breathtaking, especially Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.

But show me the team that wins all summer long with two starting pitchers.

Burnett and Rodriguez have a combined 1.80 ERA, and the Pirates are 5-2 when one of them starts. The ERA of the rest, notably James McDonald, Jeff Locke and Sanchez: 5.79.

Now, which of those three can you realistically project getting it all together?

McDonald might be it, given his bounce-back Saturday, but I'm not ready to bank on anyone with his history of confidence issues. Locke has big-league smarts but still hasn't shown the stuff to match. And Sanchez doesn't sound long at all for this level, based on Hurdle's huffing Sunday after another dud.

So where will it come from?

There aren't any Band-Aids at Triple-A Indianapolis, either. Gerrit Cole won't be up until June. And regardless of how you feel about keeping him there for arbitration and service time reasons — I'm in favor — he's been mostly wild and inefficient. Journeyman Andy Oliver has a 2.11 ERA, but it's no accident he's spent the past four years in Triple-A. The only other is Phil Irwin, who made his lone big-league start last week.

The Pirates talk wistfully of help on the way in Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton. But Liriano, fresh off a broken non-pitching arm, just got yanked in the third inning with Double-A Altoona after four runs and three walks, and his past two seasons brought 5-plus ERAs. Karstens, still with that bum shoulder, isn't close to a full rehab stint. And Morton, who had Tommy John surgery, is least certain of all.

That's the cavalry?

Therein lies the absurdity of those three being the Pirates' only major league starters signed in the offseason. And Liriano and Morton were already hurt.

Look, I'll say it again: The Pirates are earning their Ws right now, and it's a credit to all concerned. But what I'm also saying is that this won't cut it.

And don't take my word.

I asked Neal Huntington before the game Sunday if the bullpen is carrying extra long men — Gomez, Vin Mazzaro — because of all the brief starts.

“With all the injuries and instability to our rotation, we wanted a couple guys who could give us two-plus, three-plus innings,” Huntington replied.

He then mentioned Bryan Morris, a back-end type now in the minors despite better pedigree: “Bryan didn't deserve to be optioned out, and we fully expect he'll be back as our rotation evolves, as guys get healthy, then we could shift back to a more traditional bullpen.”

They should hope. Bullpens get worn down, and that's not something that manifests in April but in August. Melancon had pitched six times in nine days before Hurdle made him unavailable Sunday. (Never mind whatever Hurdle was thinking using him with a 6-0 lead Friday.) Tony Watson covered for Melancon on Sunday and pitched for the fourth time in six days. Grilli has had to grind it out a couple times.

That's admirable. As Watson put it, “We've all got each other's backs out there.”

Fine, but who will have their arms deeper into the summer?

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