Kovacevic: How will Pirates face adversity?
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Given the public panic at the Pirates losing twice to the lowly Cubs, then coming home and falling to the high-flying A's for the first three-game losing streak since ... what, Grapefruit ball? ... it surely was safe to project that a fourth consecutive loss on this Tuesday night at PNC Park would have summoned no less than the Four Horsemen of the Epic Collapse.
So, Oakland 2, Pittsburgh 1?
Batten down the hatches!
Trade Brandon Inge to the Cardinals!
Trade him to the Reds, too!
Fair enough on the Inge thing, actually. He's hitting his weight at .184, punctuated by 3-for-19 pinch-hitting. And if his primary role on the roster is clubhouse chemist, that's as expendable as his production. As attested by a few players themselves in this space a week ago, this tight-knit group has lab coats to spare.
What it needs are more bats, including what's already here.
In that same piece a week ago, I advised caution with any major trade that risks blowing up whatever cosmos aligned to get this team this far, while also expressing confidence in the pitching and the everyday eight. I stand by that, as well as the lingering asterisk attached to right field.
But no bench trade is ever a major trade, and that's now mandatory territory. Between Inge, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones and Michael McKenry, the Pirates are .148 as pinch-hitters, with one home run and 11 RBI.
That's not just upgradable.
And to his credit, Clint Hurdle acknowledged as much when pressed Tuesday, saying management is having “conversations about the best direction for the club.”
Keep talking, gentlemen.
In the seventh inning, Hurdle sent Sanchez up as a pinch-hitter with a man on second. One out, one run down.
We've seen it all year and, fair or not, tight games are what the Pirates play, and all it takes is a pinch-hit to win.
It also takes, especially with this franchise's recent history, some real resolve.
Let's not kid anyone: The sky isn't falling — not even during 90-minute rain delays that have no rain! — but this is the first real adversity the 2013 edition has faced. Sure, there was the 1-5 start and another identical stretch in June, but that was before soaring to the best record in the majors, before expectations soared concurrently.
It's important — imperative, actually — to hold it together.
“We're not changing lanes,” Hurdle fairly beamed moments after this loss. “We're staying the course.”
I think they will.
Call me crazy after seeing this team just drop series to the Phillies and Cubs and now the A's, but it's still playing quite well per its strengths — pitching and defense — and, to be blunt, several hitters are performing below par. Not just in right field, either.
There's more to be had from Neil Walker than .244 and two stints on the disabled list.
There's even more from Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, who have been good but can be great.
And what of Jones, who is capable of huge tears, but who has dragged through two months at .239 with little pop?
He assured after an 0 for 2 in this one he's “getting there,” and I'm prone to believe him.
All can and should do more.
If they don't, then revisit.
Here's something else: It's wholly possible that this little slide will be good thing.
No, think about it: If the Pirates don't ever struggle, or even if their struggles are delayed beyond the July 31 trade deadline, a lot of warts can stay hidden until it's too late. Better to start fretting over real needs right now.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Pirates have a nine-game road trip that includes the Reds and Nationals, then six each against the Cardinals and Rockies in a 15-game span.
That's a lot of hard ball.
But that's also how it goes. It's just the natural ebb and flow of baseball that the Pirates had somehow — unnaturally — sailed past until now.
Healthiest reaction of all came from the precocious Marte: “Everything is good. Tomorrow, you'll see.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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