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Pirates examining struggles at quarter mark

@adamdberry
August 8, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Under normal circumstances, the Pirates wouldn’t look too deeply into any stretch of 15 games. Even at the start of a full season, it typically takes at least 40 games before front offices and coaching staffs begin to earnestly assess where they stand. But the Pirates’ 11-5 loss

PITTSBURGH -- Under normal circumstances, the Pirates wouldn’t look too deeply into any stretch of 15 games. Even at the start of a full season, it typically takes at least 40 games before front offices and coaching staffs begin to earnestly assess where they stand.

But the Pirates’ 11-5 loss to the Tigers on Saturday afternoon at PNC Park was their 15th game of the season, and with this year’s truncated schedule, that means they are a quarter of the way through their first campaign under general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton.

Box score

Nobody is happy with the Pirates’ Major League-worst 3-12 record, their inconsistent offense or their injury-plagued pitching staff. But how do they evaluate what they’ve seen so far when, statistically, it’s a small sample size in the context of a normal season? Even Cherington admitted he didn’t have a perfect answer to that question.

"I don't like to see the record either, and none of us do. None of us like the feeling after a loss,” Cherington said. “That's why we work hard to make it better, because we don't like that feeling. But we've learned a lot and will continue to learn a lot.

“We’re going into every day preparing to win that game and believing we’re going to win that game. And then we’re going to learn a lot from the games and the outcomes. We need to take that learning and make improvements on it. So, I don’t believe those two things are mutually exclusive. I think we need to do both, to prepare and expect to win every day and also keep learning.”

There was only so much the Pirates could glean from Saturday’s game.

It began with veteran left-hander Derek Holland giving up five runs on four homers within his first 11 pitches, although he admirably hung around until the sixth inning to protect an overworked bullpen that is guaranteed to be busy again on Sunday following the news that left-hander Steven Brault will start in place of right-hander Joe Musgrove, who was scratched due to right ankle soreness.

It ended with catcher John Ryan Murphy tossing a perfect ninth inning on eight pitches, despite Holland’s best efforts to make it an easier day for the relief corps.

“I told myself, too, ‘No matter what, with what was going on with the bullpen, you’ve got to go as far as you possibly can,’” said Holland, who allowed nine runs on 13 hits and a walk while throwing 112 pitches in five-plus innings. “I don’t care what the pitch count was. I told [Shelton], too: Extend it. I don’t care if it’s 100 pitches. Give me 150, I don’t [care]. I gotta get out there and keep the bullpen from getting used up a little bit because we’ve been killing them a little bit.”

In between, their lineup had two effective innings against former Pittsburgh pitcher Iván Nova but couldn’t crack Detroit’s bullpen. They watched a scary scene unfold as Phillip Evans was carted off the field in the sixth inning. They saw Kevin Newman step out of his season-opening slump with a four-hit game, but Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco and Bryan Reynolds went a combined 0-for-12 with a walk and four strikeouts.

As a team, the Pirates are slashing .209/.273/.334 with a .607 OPS that ranks last in the Majors.

“There's a lot about this year that's strange. It does feel like hitters, compared to pitchers, across the league, may have been at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the season,” Cherington said. “There's a lot of guys with strange-looking numbers right now, if you look around the league. But we've got to control our part and do our best with where our guys are putting themselves in position to compete every night. It feels like the at-bats are starting to get better gradually.”

Newman agreed, saying the Pirates’ clubhouse remains close and confident with the belief that “we can get around the turn here pretty quickly.” The trouble, of course, is that this season provides little time for such turnarounds. Pittsburgh’s long playoff odds have already been reduced to 0.9 percent, according to FanGraphs, and the Trade Deadline looms in a little more than three weeks.

Cherington said the Pirates will keep an open mind as they move forward. What they learn about their roster over the next quarter of the season could play a part in how they approach the Aug. 31 deadline.

“It’s certainly possible that there’s a lot of activity because it is such a short runway and there’s more teams potentially involved. There’s certainly teams that maybe see an opportunity and want to push,” Cherington said. “Then, there’s also just unknowns. We don’t know yet how that’s going to affect how teams think. We’ll do our part and control our part to be really well-prepared for our opportunities to come. I think we’ve got to stay open-minded.

“Clearly, there’s things we need to get better at. Clearly. We’re not in a position to not be open-minded to anything. We need to listen and learn and see where the opportunities are. It is a harder deadline to predict than it would be in a typical year. We’ll all learn more as we get closer to it.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.