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Pirates expecting more from offense

MLB.com

CHICAGO -- Four has been the Pirates' magic number this season. The challenge has been getting there.

The Pirates lost to Mike Montgomery and the Cubs, 6-1, on Monday night at Wrigley Field. It was their 11th loss in their last 16 games, putting them eight games behind the Cubs in the National League Central. They mustered six hits, half of them by Jordy Mercer, and Mercer's eighth-inning home run off Montgomery plated their lone run.

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CHICAGO -- Four has been the Pirates' magic number this season. The challenge has been getting there.

The Pirates lost to Mike Montgomery and the Cubs, 6-1, on Monday night at Wrigley Field. It was their 11th loss in their last 16 games, putting them eight games behind the Cubs in the National League Central. They mustered six hits, half of them by Jordy Mercer, and Mercer's eighth-inning home run off Montgomery plated their lone run.

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"We're continuing to move on. I don't think there's any high sense of urgency or anything like that," Mercer said. "We just need to play our game. We know what we have in front of us. We know we have a lot of division games where we can make up a lot of ground in a hurry. It's just a matter of playing well and getting back to the way we know how to play."

When the Pirates hit, they tend to win. They are 54-17 when scoring at least four runs this season.

Monday's showing brought Pittsburgh's run total to 15 over the last six games. It was the 61st time in 132 games this season the Bucs scored three runs or fewer and the 26th time they managed one run or less. Only the Royals and Giants have been held more often to one run or less.

The Pirates rank 27th in the Majors with 556 runs scored and a .711 OPS on the year. Their .390 slugging percentage ranks 29th, ahead of only the Giants. They are among baseball's best at avoiding strikeouts, and their walk rate is in the middle of the pack.

The Pirates' rotation has had its ups and downs throughout the year, and their bullpen has cost them a handful of games. But their lineup, full of players set to return next season, presents perhaps the greatest challenge for general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle going forward: How do they get more out of this group?

For starters, by getting the entire group together. They've been without restricted third baseman Jung Ho Kang all year. They lost Starling Marte to an 80-game suspension in April. Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli and Adam Frazier have missed significant time due to injuries.

"The loss of Kang, that's 25 home runs, an easy projection there. Marte's season, there's a loss of extra-base hits and some loss of power," Huntington said Sunday. "Some of our younger hitters haven't quite come on the way we anticipated they would come on. There's going to be some continued growth and development from our own players internally."

There have been bright spots. Josh Bell quickly developed into a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. Josh Harrison is having his best season since 2014. Andrew McCutchen struggled early and has taken a step back this month, but he's still leading the team in most offensive categories.

They seemed to be finding their footing prior to this skid, scoring 45 runs in the seven games before they ran into Rich Hill's perfect-game bid Wednesday at PNC Park. They still won that night on Harrison's walk-off homer in the 10th inning, and they won Saturday in Cincinnati, 1-0, on a homer by Gerrit Cole. But one run wasn't enough against the Cubs on Monday.

"We're trying to find ways to create more offense. Guys are going up there and battling," Hurdle said. "The arms we saw in Cincy were real. They were young and they were real and they were effective, and they made pitches. ... Sometimes it's tough to hit up here."

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Jung Ho Kang, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer