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Kovacevic: Pirates' challenge starts here

| Sunday, May 25, 2014, 9:53 p.m.
The Nationals' Denard Span scores on a wild pitch past Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano during the first inning Sunday, May 25, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Nationals' Denard Span scores on a wild pitch past Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano during the first inning Sunday, May 25, 2014, at PNC Park.

It isn't easy to shed a tear for a guy soaking up $7 million to lounge on the couch for the next seven months. But if anyone on this planet was capable of feeling genuine, pained empathy for Wandy Rodriguez when the Pirates cut him loose last week, be very sure it was ultimate nice guy Ray Searage.

“That was pretty tough. It was,” the Pirates' pitching coach was telling me Sunday morning at PNC Park. “Honestly, it rips your heart out.”

But right after that …

“The need of the pitcher gets changed to the need of the team,” Searage continued with a sharp change of tone. “We just couldn't do it anymore. We needed someone right now to get us a good five or six innings. We had to protect the rest of the team.”

And so they did.

And so, it's now up to the remaining rotation to either buoy or bury the rest of the 2014 season.

Which is to say, they need to do a whole lot better than Francisco Liriano's latest dud — five innings, four runs, all-over-creation control — in that 5-2 flatliner of a loss to the Nationals, one that cut short an encouraging four-game winning streak.

“It's frustrating,” Liriano said afterward. “I feel like I'm not doing my job.”

He repeated that line no fewer than five times in a disconsolate tone, looking as down as I could recall seeing him. But he needn't have elaborated, given the context: The three previous starts — by Edinson Volquez, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole following Wandy's farewell touchdown — marked the Pirates' best string since the season's opening three. Searage went so far as to call the feel of that little run “contagious.” And now, with Rodriguez out, Brandon Cumpton's about to get his overdue shot to stick, beginning Monday in New York, which promises to upgrade what had been a black hole.

Make no mistake: Starting pitching is what it's been about all along. Not offense. Not Gregory Polanco. Not the blown saves. The starters' 4.49 ERA is second-worst in the National League, with only the disastrous Diamondbacks higher at 5.15.

“Oh, believe me. We know,” Searage said. “We know this team is only going to go as well as our starters go. We accept that when things go well and when they don't. We know.”

Three of them seem OK: Cole has a 3.76 ERA, Morton 3.29. Both just need to go deeper. Volquez's ERA is 4.27, but opponents are batting just .233, and his sore spot in San Diego has been a strong suit with a staff-low 15 walks. That's yet another reclamation feather for Searage, I might add.

But Liriano?

Wow, who's got answers there?

He's gone from legit Cy Young talk last summer to 0-5 with a 5.06 ERA overall. His May ERA alone is 6.57, and he's lasted beyond the fifth inning once. He did have some lousy luck Sunday, but no one else was to blame for four walks, 42 balls among 98 pitches and two wild pitches, both conceding a run. Nor was anyone else to blame for his lack of fastball command. Or for a slider — his signature pitch — so lifeless that even lefties were squaring it up.

I don't think I can count on one hand such occasions in 2013.

“I think we are seeing all his pitches work in sequences at times,” manager Clint Hurdle replied when I asked if Liriano had shown anything more than a changeup. “But we're not seeing consistency. And we'll keep talking to him about that, about what he's doing well and how to bring that out pitch after pitch.”

Patience here is the right approach. Let's get this much straight: There's no way the Pirates will take Liriano out of the rotation at this point. That's tossing out their most talented pitcher. That's tantamount to forfeit. Hurdle has been blunt on this stance, and he's correct.

But the sooner the better, obviously. Nice as it would be to have the ace version of Liriano back, even a competent one would be welcome now.

As for the broader picture, fault Neal Huntington, at least in part.

I had no issue with letting A.J. Burnett go, aside from bungling the qualifying offer and losing a draft pick. I also share the GM's view of Jeff Locke as “a guy who deserves to pitch in the majors.” And Jameson Taillon's elbow surgery, of course, was uncontrollable. But Rodriguez always should have been considered iffy, coming off an injury-marred 2013 and, because of that, I wrote even after Volquez's addition that another starter or two wouldn't have hurt. It obviously still wouldn't.

I asked Huntington on Sunday if he'd done enough for the rotation in the offseason, and his answer was the staple: “You never have enough starting pitching. We've got two guys in Triple-A we feel strongly about, one of whom is coming up. But we've had injuries, we've had guys not perform, and all of a sudden, guys who were eighth or ninth have to step up. It's a challenge, no question.”

For this team, still five under and about to hit the road for 10 games, it's the challenge.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic

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