Biertempfel: Pirates must find consistency with no prospects ready
CHICAGO — After just one turn through the Pirates' lineup Wednesday, Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann thought pitcher Julio Teheran might have a shot at a no-hitter.
“It was their swings,” McCann said. “They weren't aggressive.”
A few days earlier, during a homestand against the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates had the opposite problem. They took big swings throughout those five games and scored only 11 total runs. Although they went 3-2 in that stretch, the Pirates were twice shut out and won one game 1-0 in 11 innings.
Manager Clint Hurdle was only half-joking when he said Garrett Jones' river-shot homer was the only time the Pirates connected on one of their big hacks the whole week.
There's a word that describes when a team plays .600 ball despite averaging two runs a game: unsustainable. It finally caught up with the Pirates last week in Atlanta. The Pirates were swept in a three-game series, being outscored a combined 17-6 and out-hit 25-15.
“I think the (batters') intent is right,” Hurdle said. “It comes down to execution. These guys are making every effort to get better results, but they're not getting them.”
Sluggish offense has been an issue for the Pirates all season, but it seemed to reach a low point last week against the Braves. Going into the weekend series against the Chicago Cubs, the Pirates ranked 12th in the National League in runs per game (3.67), runs scored, hits, on-base plus slugging percentage (.677).
Although they had the sixth-most home runs in the league, the Pirates ranked just 12th in slugging percentage (.377). They drew walks in 7 percent of all plate appearances (fourth-worst in the NL) and struck out 22.3 percent of the time (third-worst in the NL).
All of which begs the question, how can the Pirates fix their offense? There is no easy answer.
Unlike a few years ago, when Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez were standing by in Triple-A, there are no impact bats in the upper levels of the farm system. The trade market won't really heat up for another month. Someone like Andre Ethier or Aramis Ramirez might be available to help the Pirates at the July 31 trade deadline, but not now.
For the time being, the only way the Pirates can repair their ailing attack is to work with what they have.
Over the past couple of weeks, Hurdle made changes — some subtle, others dramatic — to his lineup every day. There was a different No. 2 hitter four days in a row. Each lineup against the Braves had a different No. 5 guy. McCutchen got a day off. Russell Martin started a game in right field for the first time since he was in junior college.
However, Hurdle downplayed the notion he was trying to spark the lineup by shuffling it. The changes, he said, were based on statistical analysis — the best pitcher-hitter matchups for every spot in the order — trying to gain every, tiny possible advantage.
“It's not like we're re-creating the wheel on offense,” Hurdle said. “To make any more of it than that, I think it's a misrepresentation of what we're trying to do. We've done a few things to take advantage of the roster we have, to give guys some rest and to keep guys in play.”
In the series finale against the Braves, Brandon Inge broke up Teheran's no-hit bid with a line-drive single in the eighth inning. It was the Pirates' only hit of the game.
Inge, 36, has seen plenty of streaks and slumps over his 13 seasons in the majors. He knows they never last. So, when I asked him what ingredient is missing from the Pirates' offense, he got a bit exasperated.
“No disrespect toward anyone, but you guys and the fans are always trying to put your finger on something to figure it out,” Inge said. “That's fine. But our responsibility as players is not to (do that). The season is 162 games. You can't live and die on one series. Because if you start to try to ‘figure out' what's going on, you're not going to figure it out.”
In other words, the missing ingredient is patience. Last season, the offense was terrible in April and May, then surged in June and July to help boost the Pirates atop the division. Inge believes another surge will happen soon.
“When you hit, everyone says , ‘We're playing great.' When it goes bad, everyone says, ‘Oh, how do you fix it?' instead of just keep going,” Inge said. “Instead of it going one way, it's going the other way. Just keep going. It will turn around. Don't panic, don't pressure it. Just keep going.”