Bucs happy to have rough June behind them

Bucs happy to have rough June behind them

CHICAGO -- By the time June neared its merciful end, the Pirates had run dry of adjectives to describe a 30-day period that was among the worst this franchise has endured in decades.

Woeful. Trying. Disheartening. Embarrassing. Calamitous.

They had all been used at least once.

At one point, manager John Russell even labeled it rock bottom of his managerial tenure. And really, logic says it can't get much worse than it's already been.

Pittsburgh opens up a four-game set against the Phillies on Thursday, more thrilled to see the calendar turn to July than to realize the team will miss having to face Philadelphia's Roy Halladay over the holiday weekend. The slate is clean. And the only streak to worry about is a winning one, given that the Pirates enter the month coming off a June 30 victory in Chicago.

"The biggest thing is we've got to find some ways to win and eliminate some of the mistakes," Russell said. "I've been very pleased with some of the things these guys have done, but also very discouraged with some of the things that continue to hold us back.

"We need to relax," he continued. "I've seen good energy. It's just piecing it all together. It's a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle with a young team, but you've got to find what works. There are some great signs, but we find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot. To win close games, you can't make mistakes."

From an historical perspective, this June ranked among the worst in the organization's history. Since the start of 1900, no Pirates team had won six or fewer June games until this team finished the month 6-20. In fact, the only Pittsburgh club to have a worse June record was the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, who went 4-20 and finished the season 23-113.

The last time the Pirates finished a month with fewer than seven wins was September 1998 (5-22). Consider, too, that only two other times since 1900 have the Pirates played 20 games in a month and won six or fewer: September 1952 (4-18) and May 1917 (6-14).

And during it all last month, the Pirates endured a 12-game losing streak and a 17-game road losing skid.

"Interleague altogether for us wasn't too pretty," Andy LaRoche said. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong. But it's a long season. You've got to put that behind you. There's nothing you can do about it, really."

While it may be the overall objective, it would be unfair to define June solely by wins and losses. In fact, the Pirates see the month largely as a launching pad for future success.

It was during June that the Pirates served as a gracious opponent for Stephen Strasburg's much ballyhooed debut on June 8, before unveiling cornerstones of their own future a day later. Brad Lincoln and Jose Tabata debuted in Washington. Only one more week passed before top prospect Pedro Alvarez joined them.

The three fostered palpable hype in Pittsburgh, though their first few weeks in the Majors have been met with plenty of adversity. Such an initiation period is not at all unusual for any recent call-up, and don't think that any of the hiccups have lowered management's long-term expectations of the rookies' potential.

Alvarez has struck out 22 times in 46 at-bats already, while notching just seven hits. The learning curves haven't been as harsh for Tabata, who has fit in nicely at the top of the lineup, or Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln took a significant step forward on Wednesday, when he collected his first Major League win. His performance also sealed a series victory for the club.

"It's not like we've been getting our butts kicked every time," Lincoln aptly noted. "We compete. We go out there every day and have a fresh mind. We've just been on the other side of things and hopefully this series win will put us on the upside."

His point is valid. Of the 20 games Pittsburgh lost in June, a dozen were decided by two or fewer runs. And a look at the numbers reveals that the Pirates' production hasn't sustained the same drastic dip that the results have.

After batting .236 and .238 as a team in April and May, respectively, the Pirates hit at a .237 clip in June. Granted, that's certainly nowhere near enough offense to enjoy sustained success.

The staff's ERA rose from a 4.36 mark in May to a 4.71 ERA this month. But June certainly was an improvement over April, in which Pittsburgh pitchers posted a 6.61 ERA. The rotation actually produced more quality starts in June (11) than in April (six), even though starters won the same amount of games (four) in each month.

"They really don't know how close they are to being a pretty good ballclub," Russell said. "It's just because of the youth. Once they get on a little bit of a roll, they should relax. When you play tense, you're going to make a few mistakes.

"It's tough," Russell continued. "I don't know if I've ever seen much like it, but you have to go through it. We'll be a stronger team because of it. We've got to get through it."

What else looks encouraging for the Pirates moving forward? Well, their schedule, for one, seems more favorable in July, most notably because it doesn't include any American League teams. Pittsburgh finished a dismal 2-13 in Interleague Play, a large factor in June's final record.

In addition, the Pirates will play the majority of their July games at home, and 13 will come against the Astros and Brewers, neither of whom are faring much better than Pittsburgh this year.

There are other reasons to expect an improvement, too. Jeff Karstens proved over the past month that he can be a nice piece in the rotation. Ross Ohlendorf ended June with his best start of the season. The back end of the bullpen continues to be formidable, and the offense -- particularly when Neil Walker was healthy -- showed some life near the top.

Now, it's just finding a way to put it all together, minimize mistakes and find ways to avoid complacency with a .500 record likely no longer a realistic goal with 84 games remaining.

"We've got to try to put together a string of wins," Lastings Milledge said. "We need a lot of wins in a row to get us back on track. We've still got to focus because we want to finish up strong. There's always something to play for. There's always pride."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.