Pirates face 26-game stretch of reckoning
The time of reckoning has arrived for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant situation.
Optimists might argue you should label the next 26 games as an opportunity. The stretch that begins Tuesday at Minute Maid Park in Houston and concludes July 25 against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park will define the season and, perhaps, future seasons.
A losing record could coax management into selling veterans for prospects. Perhaps good for the long term, but bad for fans’ short-term interest.
The Pirates have won six of their past eight after the seven-game losing streak that wasn’t as bad as the eight-gamer in April. Suffice to say, the Pirates dug a big hole, fell in and are trying to climb out and stand up straight.
Tied for last with the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central (36-40), they will be tested by 10 games against first-place teams (the Astros and Cubs), six against the Milwaukee Brewers, who are a half-game behind the Cubs, and 10 more against the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies.
Here are five thoughts on the last off day before the All-Star break July 8-11.
1. Hello, Gerrit Cole
For the first time since they traded Cole to the Astros 17 months ago, the Pirates confront their 2011 first-round draft choice.
He has been one of the American League’s best pitchers in that time, winning 21 games with ERAs and WHIPS of 2.88 and 1.033 (last year) and 3.54 and 1.024 (this season). In 13 of 16 starts, he has pitched through the sixth inning, the gold standard these days for pitchers.
This season, he leads the majors in strikeouts (148), but he will face one of the most difficult teams to strike out. Only the Twins, Astros and Angels have struck out fewer than the Pirates (613).
2. Hope for pitchers
All four players the Pirates received in return for Cole are on the trip, led by starting pitcher Joe Musgrove (5-7, 4.57), a fierce competitor in Cole’s mold who gets the ball Thursday for the last of the three games.
There’s hope for the Pirates’ pitching staff in the sense that management hopes Musgrove finds more consistency and Trevor Williams can return to his previous form that led him to 14 victories last season. Williams has made only 10 starts this season, due to a side strain.
Jordan Lyles, who allowed only two hits and struck out seven in his 5 1/3-inning rehab start Sunday with Triple-A Indianapolis, could return this week and Steven Brault and Chris Archer are showing signs of effectiveness.
“He got big outs and kept big numbers off the board,” manager Clint Hurdle said of Brault, who started Sunday’s 11-10 victory against the San Diego Padres.
Brault also did what few pitchers do these days: He drove in a run with an RBI single and went from first to third on Kevin Newman’s single.
“I like to hit. I like to run the bases,” Brault said. “I try to do it as competitively as I can.”
But Brault also was quick to point out the pitching staff — he included himself in this assessment — was lacking. Four pitchers gave up two or more runs.
“Today was about the hitters,” he said. “The pitchers didn’t necessarily do our job.”
Thanks to two off days last week, Brault had eight days between starts and he’s hoping to get back in rhythm this weekend in Milwaukee.
3. Bats are still alive
While avoiding an excessive amount of strikeouts, the Pirates are sixth in the majors and fourth in the National League with a .263 batting average. They had 17 hits Sunday, eight in the final three innings with the game on the line.
“The collective effort in the box has been real,” Hurdle said.
Third baseman Colin Moran, a product of the Cole trade, has been a big part of that resurgence, driving in more runs (41) than anyone on the team other than Josh Bell and hitting .271 with 10 homers.
Most of the Pirates hitters have no history against Cole. Melky Cabrera is 2 for 9 and Corey Dickerson 2 for 3.
4. Help in the dugout
Pirates pinch hitters lead the majors with a .342 batting average (38 for 111). They were 4 for 5 Sunday.
Jose Osuna also leads the majors with three pinch-hit home runs and is hitting .290 overall. He’s playing well enough that the Pirates might have a surplus of infielders when Erik Gonzalez returns, perhaps next month.
The first-year hitting coaches deserve some of the credit. Rick Eckstein told Jacob Stallings to look for Matt Wisler’s slider in the 11th inning. Stallings drove one 94.7 mph into left field for a game-tying single.
Assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz only hit .241 as a player, but in his final season (2005) he led the majors and set a Cincinnati Reds record with 20 pinch hits.
“He’s got some skin in the game,” Hurdle said of Cruz.
5. Rodriguez’s return
The Pirates need help in the bullpen, and Richard Rodriguez is supplying it.
He has allowed nine home runs, but none in June. He has surrendered no runs, seven hits and five walks in his past 10 appearances.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .