Pirates don't allow misfortune to deter them
Struggling club comes up big after day fraught with injury challenges
ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates showed up at Busch Stadium on Saturday afternoon having lost 12 of their last 15 games, including the last four in a row. In a season in which they hoped to build off last year's end to a two-decade postseason drought, they found only the Chicago Cubs behind them in the NL Central.
And then the Pirates had to remove starting pitcher Francisco Liriano with no outs, a runner on first and 3-0 count on Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter in the bottom of the third inning of a scoreless game Saturday afternoon.
While there was speculation on the Internet of everything, including an elbow problem, it turned out Liriano had a bloody nose in the top of the inning and when he went to the mound to resume pitching, he got dizzy and developed "flu-like symptoms." That forced manager Clint Hurdle to remove the man who dominated the Cardinals lineup a year ago after he had registered only six outs.
And at that point in the day, that was the good news for the Pirates.
Things got better -- a lot better -- as the afternoon wore on. The Pirates walked out of Busch Stadium with a 6-1 victory. They came up with a four-run fourth that included a two-run double from Gaby Sanchez. And they received seven strong innings from a five-man bullpen tag-team, led by Stolmy Pimentel, who replaced Liriano, shut down a two-on, no-out Cardinals threat in the third and was credited with the victory.
Not that Hurdle was surprised.
It is what he has come to expect from the team he has managed since the start of the 2011 season.
"When you look at the big picture our guys expect to make the most of each opportunity they receive," said Hurdle. "We aren't going to complain. It won't make you feel better and nobody else really cares. You have challenges. Everybody runs into a sand bar along the way. You have to move on."
Sand bar? How about the Sahara Desert?
Saturday began with the announcement that the Pirates put closer Jason Grilli on the DL with a strained left oblique, and also disabled catcher Russell Martin, who had complained of a sore hip, with what is now being called a left hamstring strain. He was flown to Pittsburgh where doctors were asked to figure out if the hamstring caused the hip problem.
"We've taken on a lot in the last 24 hours," admitted Hurdle. "Too many times you let off the gas pedal and when you do that it might be the time you are ready to push through [the troubles]."
Saturday, the Pirates shoved on. That four-run fourth inning equaled the Pirates' run total in the four-game losing streak. That 6-1 final matched their fifth biggest run total of the season, the fourth biggest in the last 18 games.
"Sometimes the storyline has to change," said Hurdle. "One thing our guys do is continue to play, continue to push on. Nobody is going to take the time to feel sorry for you. They are looking to take advantage of the situation."
That's been especially the case for the Pirates in April. When they leave St. Louis on Sunday night they will have played a home-and-away series against all four NL Central rivals. Monday night they open an Interleague series in Baltimore, the first time they will have played a team from outside the division.
It has been a bit challenging, which is evident by the 10-15 record, and the loss of Grilli and Martin to the disabled list. Grilli was an All-Star last year, and Martin is one of those catchers who has middle-of-the-lineup offensive potential. One area the Pirates have proven depth is the bullpen.
"You lose key players and you have to dig," said Hurdle. "A good team creates depth. We feel we've done that. We had a lot of players who played a part in what happened last year."
The Pirates used more players (49) and more pitchers (28) than any of the four other NL teams that advanced to the postseason last year. They had 11 pitchers start a game, five more than the Braves, three more than the Reds, one more than the Cardinals, and the same as the Dodgers.
"These guys have that 'next man out' mentality," said Hurdle. "Whoever we call up, they expected him to do well. They challenge each other. Anyone that is not feeling that way doesn't belong."
No reason for that to change now.
Twenty-five games into the season they already have used 29 players this year, including 14 pitchers.
Nobody underscores the roster flexibility of the Pirates more than reliever Jared Hughes.
When Wandy Rodriguez was placed on the DL on Monday, Hughes was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis, got a call from the bullpen that night against Cincinnati in the ninth inning, and was credited with the Pirates' 6-5 walk-off victory. He was shipped back to Indianapolis on Thursday, earned a save that night for Indianapolis, and found himself not only back in the big leagues Saturday, but called on to work 1 1/3 innings in the win at St. Louis.
"It's about getting the opportunity and taking advantage of it," said Hurdle. "Each day is a new challenge."
The Pirates met the challenge Saturday.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.