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Starkey: Pirates have a problem

| Saturday, June 7, 2014, 9:18 p.m.

People have been calling for the Pirates to trade for a starting pitcher. Dealing staff ace Gerrit Cole for Jeff Locke likely isn't what they had in mind.

It's the only exchange on the table at the moment, however, because Cole has “some shoulder fatigue,” manager Clint Hurdle said, and is a candidate for the disabled list. Locke is expected to take Charlie Morton's start Sunday. Morton will take Cole's turn Monday.

From there? Nobody knows. But it's fair to say the Pirates' season could hang in the balance.

Losing Cole for an extended period could be a death blow for a team that remains three games under .500 and seven games out of first place in the NL Central after a 9-3 loss Saturday.

For what it's worth, Hurdle didn't sound overly concerned. He wasn't definitive, either. And when you're talking about pitchers and shoulders and elbows and soreness and “fatigue” and disabled lists, you just never know.

Remember when Jameson Taillon had a sore elbow? That turned into Tommy John surgery two weeks later.

Cole and Andrew McCutchen are the two most indispensable players on the team. Cole leads the staff in wins and innings, though he clearly hasn't been the guy we saw late last season — the guy who struck out 39 hitters in 32 September innings and followed up with two solid playoff appearances.

Second baseman Neil Walker, like Hurdle, didn't seem alarmed.

“We have the utmost confidence in (Cole) every time he takes the mound, but we need him for August and September, too,” Walker said. “He obviously needs to get a blow here and get his feet back underneath him.”

Edinson Volquez's take: “He's young. He'll be all right.”

And who knows? This could be a good thing, if a little rest brings back the animal we saw in September.

The pregame Saturday was rife with mystery surrounding Locke being pulled from his previous start at Triple-A Indianapolis. After the game, Hurdle confirmed that Cole would miss at least his next start.

Asked to elaborate on the word “fatigue,” Hurdle said, “I think you can look it up and figure out what it means. That's the best I got for ya.”

Did Cole have an MRI?

“I don't even go there,” Hurdle said. “That's a part that I don't dabble into.”

We know this much: Cole's 196 innings last season, between Triple-A and the majors, were by far the most he'd ever logged. And after working at least seven innings in four of his first seven starts this season, he couldn't get past 6 13 in any of his past five.

Pressed for his gut feel whether this could be something serious, Hurdle said, “I think fatigue is the proper word. If you look at the season he pitched last year, the run he went on with us late, coming out the chute (this season), we really feel that it's fatigue at this point in time.”

This didn't just happen, either. Hurdle said it was building.

“There have been some things that we've talked about, just some red flags that you pick up — consistency of pitches, volume of pitches, efficiency of pitches,” he said. “There's a lot of different factors that you look at. And you do talk to him and get his feedback.”

I tried to talk to Cole to get his feedback, as well, right after Hurdle spoke. He understandably was in no mood to talk. As he briskly walked away, his back pack slung over his shoulder, he said, “Not tonight.”

As it relates to the rest of Cole's scheduled starts, that better not be a phrase the Pirates hear more than a handful of times.

Otherwise, they could be doomed.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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