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Kovacevic: Pirates' burden falls on all 25

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
 

There's nothing at all wrong with these Pirates that Gregory Polanco couldn't fix. Provided, of course, the kid could scale the 21-foot Clemente Wall, consume six or seven spots on Clint Hurdle's lineup card, climb the mound every fifth day and, if he wanted to show off, part the Allegheny on his daily walk to work.

Did I mention hitting the occasional nine-run homer?

“We know what everyone in Pittsburgh is talking about right now. We know it's Polanco,” Starling Marte, Polanco's Dominican countryman and friend, was telling me on a wild Wednesday at PNC Park, where the Pirates needed every stroke of their offensive output to put down Baltimore, 9-8. “He's a good hitter. We all know that. But he's one player. It takes 25 to win.”

Or, it takes 25 to turn a season into something even uglier than this three-hour, 28-minute slush.

Not to be the downer here. The Pirates battled back in this one. Overcame what might have been Wandy Rodriguez's Matt Morris-esque farewell start. Big knock from Tony Sanchez. Big save for Mark Melancon. Huzzah to all.

But 19-26 doesn't lie, and neither did much of what was witnessed on this night. This team's a mess still waiting to be sorted.

Really, I'd thought nothing but positive stuff back in spring training. This was mostly the same group that galvanized a franchise and its fan base only a year back, that moved grown men and women to tears of joy. They themselves sounded galvanized, too, speaking boldly of taking the next step.

I didn't think the starters could match a masterful 2013, but they've gone into absolute free fall with a 4.60 ERA that's fifth worst in the majors. Pitching wins make a terrible stat, but it's still telling that Gerrit Cole is 4-3 and the rest of the rotation 1-17. The rest of the staff, essentially, is Jimmy Anderson.

I didn't think the relievers could match 2013, as bullpen brilliance seldom knows a sequel, but they've had their own free fall, especially at the back end where Jason Grilli and Melancon have turned four leads into losses, one more than all last season. On Wednesday, Bryan Morris tossed out a two-run lead.

I actually thought they'd hit better. Their .321 on-base percentage is middle of the pack, but a lack of punch and timeliness has their run production — still the only stat that counts — at fifth lowest in the majors.

Who's to blame for it all?

Candidly, I'd start with the 25 it takes to win, and I'd pretty much end there, too.

“We've got to hit better,” Marte said on a day he'd go 3 for 4 with a two-run triple.

“We've got to pitch better,” Melancon said on a day he'd zip 1-2-3 through the ninth.

“We need to play better. That's it,” Hurdle said. “We especially need to pitch better, but we've got to do everything better.”

Heady stuff, I know. But it's a message that probably needs to resonate beyond the clubhouse walls. Because all I hear anymore is about Bob Nutting the bad owner (a dated narrative that went conspicuously silent last year), about payroll not going up (it's on pace to wind up about $12 million higher), about $25 million in new national TV money not being used (the figure is half that in the first year), about A.J. Burnett not being brought back (he blew off $12 million that would have given him the highest salary in team history), about Justin Morneau going on a power tear in Colorado (after he could barely hit a ball out of the infield in two months here) and, way above all, about Polanco.

Look, I wish Polanco were here, too. But to repeat my stance back when this arbitration issue applied to Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Cole, the money involved — at least $15 million if Polanco proves to be a star — is utterly insane for two months of anyone. He'll be here in a couple of weeks.

I also wish management would ship out Rodriguez, who coughed up seven runs and showed disturbing body language in the process. That'll cost $5.4 million, but that's a reasonable price in this setting. It's past time to give a real chance to Brandon Cumpton, who's been curiously cast by this front office as Jeff Karstens II when all the guy's done is pile up outs.

Overall, though, any turnaround has to happen with what you see before you.

Next chance is Edinson Volquez's first pitch Thursday against Washington. And, as Volquez put it when I raised the hot topic, “I love Polanco. But when he gets here, he isn't making my pitches for me.”

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

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates second baseman Neil Walker waits out a mound visit during the Orioles' six-run second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates second baseman Neil Walker waits out a mound visit during the Orioles' six-run second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez reacts while giving up six runs during the second inning against the Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez reacts while giving up six runs during the second inning against the Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez waits to be removed from the game during the second inning against the Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez waits to be removed from the game during the second inning against the Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen waits out a mound visit during the Orioles' six-run second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen waits out a mound visit during the Orioles' six-run second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez walks from the mound after giving up a home run to the Orioles' Nelson Cruz during the second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez walks from the mound after giving up a home run to the Orioles' Nelson Cruz during the second inning Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.
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