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Tim Benz: Pirates can’t afford injury bug within starting staff | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Pirates can’t afford injury bug within starting staff

Tim Benz
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Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon talks with Chris Archer in the dugout during a game against the A’s Saturday, May 4, 2019, at PNC Park.

In his usual Sunday media scrum with reporters, Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington rattled through the litany of injuries that have beset his club.

“We haven’t had an at-bat from our regular left fielder (Corey Dickerson),” Huntington said to begin his mental checklist. “Our regular right fielder (Gregory Polanco) missed (almost) the first month of the season. The guy that we signed to be the regular right fielder (Lonnie Chisenhall) while the regular right fielder was out hasn’t taken an at-bat. We lost a starting shortstop (Erik Gonzalez) to a broken collar bone. We’ve had a catcher (Elias Diaz, then Jacob Stallings) on the injured list all year long.”

Not to mention all the other things that have gone wrong for the Pirates this year.

Well, until Huntington mentioned them, too.

• Jung Ho Kang and Francisco Cervelli hitting under .200.

• Entering Sunday, five relief pitchers with ERAs between 4.63 and 9.35.

• An eight-game losing streak.

• Multiple blown late leads.

“That’s a recipe for a 10-20 team,” Huntington concluded.

Instead, the Pirates are 16-15 after a 5-3 win over Oakland in 13 innings Sunday afternoon. The recipe for them going 10-20 over the next 30 games is to see that same injury bug infect what has been an excellent starting staff.

Unfortunately, it appears the bug is starting to bite.

Chris Archer is on the shelf with a thumb injury. It’s unclear as to when he will be back. Huntington refused to get nailed down on a “week-to-10-day” suggestion when answering questions Sunday. Then there is Jameson Taillon. The right-hander has an elbow flexor strain in his pitching arm. He won’t throw for at least a month.

At the start of MLB action Sunday afternoon, the starters in Pittsburgh amassed a 3.51 ERA as a unit. That was tied for the fifth-best mark in the majors. With Jordan Lyles’ quality start against the A’s Sunday, the Pirates now have 18 of those efforts on the season. That’s the most in the National League, and second in the big leagues behind only Houston.

So the Pirates’ biggest problem — injuries — is now affecting their best attribute: the starting rotation.

And if the starting pitching starts to crumble over the next month, 10-20 might become a reality this time.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to score more runs,” Huntington said. “We are going to have to figure out a way to cover nine innings and keep our opponents’ run totals down.”

As Huntington pointed out, the best way to do that is to hope the remaining three pitchers from the opening day rotation stay hot. In this past series against Oakland, Joe Musgrove couldn’t finish the third inning, allowing five runs en route to a 14-1 defeat Friday. Aside from that, he’s been wonderful this year, posting a 1.54 ERA before that blowout loss.

On Saturday, Trevor Williams gave up three runs in the first inning. But then he gutted through the next five frames, allowing just one more to the Athletics. And Lyles allowed only one run in 6⅔ innings pitched Sunday.

“Guys aren’t thinking about who is down, who isn’t playing right now,” Lyles said after his start. “Individually, we’ve done a good job of doing our (own) jobs.”

The rest of Huntington’s map through the woods of injury is dicey.

“Nick Kingham and Steven Brault need to step up,” Huntington stated. “And we are going to need to cover some innings the middle (of their starts).”

Easier said than done.

Neither Kingham nor Brault has started a game this year. And they have both struggled in relief. Kingham’s ERA in eight games is 6.39. Brault’s ERA in four games is 8.31.

And in terms of leaning on the middle relief for help before getting to closer Felipe Vazquez, that’s been an adventure.

Brault and Kingham aren’t the only hurlers to have struggled out of the pen this season. Kyle Crick (4.00), Keone Kela (4.63), Richard Rodriguez (5.14), and Nick Burdi (9.35) have all posted ERAs well above what was expected of them.

On Sunday, two-thirds of Huntington’s equation worked. Lyles gave the Pirates a good start. The bullpen helped to “cover” more than nine innings. But the bats did nothing for 12, totaling one run and only six hits over that stretch.

Then in the 13th inning, Starling Marte’s three-run homer won it and erased the previous four hours of offensive frustration.

Without this missing ingredient of offensive consistency, the Pirates could wind up with that awful tasting recipe Huntington mentioned earlier — the “10-20 stew.”

“You play, man,” manager Clint Hurdle said after the win. “They can beat people. And they know they can beat people.”

So long as those three remaining starters stay upright, probably. If they don’t, though? Well, the bats better wake up in fewer than 13 innings when Brault and Kingham pitch.

I’m pretty sure that’s mentioned in the recipe, too.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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