Pirates’ resiliency is remarkable

By Ron Cook

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sure, it would have been great for the Pirates if they had swept the Reds and hit that elusive five-game winning streak for the first time this season. They took an early lead against starter Johnny Cueto and had their starter, Francisco Liriano, dealing. But a couple home-run swings by Chris Heisey - one against Liriano, the other against reliever Jared Hughes - led to a loss. It’s hard to feel too badly about it or be mad at the club.

It’s not just because of what the Pirates have done since the seven-game losing streak in mid-August that nearly destroyed their season. They avoided a sweep by the Atlanta Braves by winning the final game of that series, then took two of three at Milwaukee and at home against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Reds. That’s fine work.

What the Pirates have overcome all season to remain alive in the division and wild-card races is what is most impressive. If you were told in spring training that Liriano would have three wins through August, Gerrit Cole would be on the disabled list twice, All-Star closer Jason Grilli would be demoted from his role and traded, key players Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin and Neil Walker would miss significant time with injuries and Pedro Alvarez would be so bad at third base that the team would move him to first in an act of desperation, what chances would you have given it of playing meaningful games in September? Zero.

Alvarez has been the biggest disappointment. He was the Pirates’ best hitter in the postseason last year, but his power numbers have dropped from 36 home runs and 100 RBIs last season. Even worse, he couldn’t make a simple throw across the infield, the biggest reason for his 25 errors.

But starting pitching has been the most significant challenge for the Pirates. It started early when Wandy Rodriguez was injured and then released. Liriano struck out 10 Chicago Cubs and got a no-decision on opening day, then didn’t win his first game until May 30. Cole went on the DL with a tired shoulder and then an aching back. Charlie Morton was disabled in mid-August with hip inflammation.

Edinson Volquez has stepped up big time.

“He’s done a remarkable job,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. The team was ridiculed widely for signing Volquez to a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason. “We know that we’re not always going to be successful with these types of moves, but these are the ones we’re going to have to look at every year,” Huntington said.

Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley started the season in the minors but came up to make major contributions.

No one has been more important to the Pirates’ success than Josh Harrison. He has been so good that Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have begun to lobby for him as NL MVP.

“Not that I ever think anyone should take votes away from our center fielder as an MVP,” Huntington said of McCutchen. “But if you look at where we’d be without Josh Harrison, we would be in a lot of trouble. I certainly hope they don’t split our votes, but I hope Josh Harrison gets recognition for how important he’s been for us.”

It has been all over the field with Harrison. He was a reserve who had just 23 at-bats through May 2. He got his break when Jose Tabata and Travis Snider failed in right field. He played well at second base when Walker went on the DL because of an appendectomy. He was outstanding in left field when Starling Marte scuffled. He has taken over at third for Alvarez.

“What Josh has always done for short stints is give you that burst of energy,” Huntington said. “Then the league would figure out where to get him out. Well, they haven’t figured him out yet and I hope they don’t figure it out for the next 10 years.

“He’s made great adjustments with the bat. He’s made pitchers come to him and he’s barreled so many huge pitches and had so many huge hits for us. He’s a gamer. He’s such an energy player.”

Closer Mark Melancon has picked up for Grilli and has 26 saves. Marte moved to center and Snider went to left and took on a lot of the offense when McCutchen was out for 15 days in early August with a serious rib injury. There are more examples.

The Pirates tried Alvarez at first base after Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez failed. After Alvarez went down with a foot injury, Davis moved back in at first base and won consecutive games against the Cardinals with home runs.

“These guys love to play,” Hurdle said.

“We’re looking forward to continue to grind, to grit things out. Show up. It’s what’s next for us. We’ve got to match up and go.”

For sure, the Pirates will show up. They’ve been showing up all season. Why stop now?