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Biertempfel: Patience required when assessing Pirates

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 8:12 p.m.

ST. LOUIS

April is a difficult month to quantify in baseball terms.

Every kind of streak seems to be more pronounced. When Mike Trout went deep in his first at-bat on Opening Day, it sparked an avalanche of tweets that he was on track for 589 homers this season. Everyone wonders how long a hot start will last. But when Andrew McCutchen's batting average dipped to .194 on April 11, Twitter resembled the deck of the Titanic.

It's that kind of month.

“You know it's going to be cold. You know it's going to rain,” McCutchen said with a shrug. “But you've got to make the best of it. Just go out and keep working. If things aren't going so well, you know that things will change for you.”

What have the Pirates made of this April? I posed that question to manager Clint Hurdle a few days ago, and he summed it up nicely: “Our record stands at 9-12. We've earned that.”

You thought exorcising the bad karma of 21 straight losing seasons was tough? If April is any indication, nothing will come easy for the Pirates this year.

Hurdle has a laundry list of April expectations for any team he manages. “You want to get a rhythm,” he said. “You'd like to see your starters give you innings. Offensively, you look for consistency. Defensively, you always want to play 27 outs. Baserunning, you want it to be crisp with good decisions made.”

The Pirates have won back-to-back games just once and twice lost three in a row. So much for rhythm.

The starters are averaging 6 23 innings per game, which is tied for fourth best in the National League. But their 4.22 ERA is third worst in the league. Sophomore Gerrit Cole has been solid, and newcomer Edinson Volquez has pitched like an ace. Incredibly, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez collectively have produced more trips to the disabled list (one) than victories (none).

“It's such a long year, you'd like to have a good foundation,” Morton said. “April is when you lay that foundation.”

Morton produced two good starts, two clunkers and one that was so-so. A shaky foundation? Not necessarily. Even in the stinky starts, Morton found reasons for optimism. “I can look at those outings objectively and feel that nothing felt like it was out of hand,” he said.

Closer Jason Grilli already has blown three saves, including a pair on consecutive days.

“That freaked out some people,” Hurdle said. “But we're capable (in the bullpen). We're going to be good out there. I'm very confident of the group we have out there.”

The offense leads the league in home runs and ranks fourth in runs scored — encouraging signs that the “stay stubborn” approach preached by Hurdle and hitting coach Jeff Branson is paying off. It will be difficult to stay there, though, with a .232 batting average and .686 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Neil Walker, who never has hit more than 16 homers in a season, had a half-dozen by April 20. He'll take them but also knows there's a long way to go.

“You always want to have a good April because it sets you up going into the warmer months,” Walker said. “But at the same time, if you're an everyday guy, April has 100 at-bats in it. A hundred at-bats aren't going to make or break your season.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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