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Anthony Castrovince

With Cutch back, don't count out the slumping Pirates

Bucs hope reigning NL MVP Award winner can help them bounce back from slide

With Cutch back, don't count out the slumping Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates took their annual team photo before Tuesday's game at PNC Park, and Andrew McCutchen was in it.

Unsurprisingly, Clint Hurdle was smiling even a little wider than usual.

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"I knew [Monday] night he was going to come back [Tuesday], so I was charged up," Hurdle said. "The whole ride home, I was honking the horn, waving at everyone, 'He's baaack!'"

Yes, he's back, but the losing continued Tuesday night. The Pirates were blown out by the Braves to extend their losing streak to a season-high seven games, and McCutchen, whose quick recovery from a rib fracture won't quell concern about the possibility of a relapse in this rotational sport, went 0-for-4.

So, is Cutch back too late to save these Buccos?

Well, look around the league for a second, and the answer is unequivocally, "No." At least, as far as the National League Wild Card is concerned.

McCutchen remains a front-runner, albeit it a fading favorite (thanks to Giancarlo Stanton), for his second consecutive NL MVP Award, his pulse and presence an asset both in quantifiable and unquantifiable terms. Furthermore, Pittsburgh will welcome Gerrit Cole back to the rotation Wednesday night in its series finale with Atlanta.

While these additions certainly can't solve the yips that have made Pedro Alvarez all but unplayable at third, or the back issues that have limited Neil Walker's involvement in recent weeks, or the hip inflammation that erased Charlie Morton from the rotation for the next couple weeks, they are significant additions all the same. And while this seven-game skid cost the Pirates 5 1/2 games in the NL Central, where a hot Brewers club could be lapping them, they remain a manageable two games back in a Wild Card race full of flawed clubs (Atlanta included).

The NL has been quite forgiving this season, to say the least, and the Bucs could benefit from that benevolence, if and only if McCutchen is as healthy as he insists.

As you might have expected, the Pirates went 5-9 without the reigning NL MVP, but McCutchen made it back quicker than initially expected from an injury he suffered in Arizona.

"It's an injury where nobody knew what it was," McCutchen said. "Most people were saying 'oblique,' but it had nothing to do with the oblique. It's just cartilage. Cartilage is part of the bone, but it's not necessarily the bone, either."

Whatever it is, it will remain monitored, and McCutchen is playing with what Hurdle called a "poor man's flak jacket" to protect him from any stray inside pitches.

"It makes me look like I've put on a little weight," Cutch said with a smile. "But I haven't."

Starling Marte carried the weight very well in McCutchen's absence, batting .373 with three homers, six doubles, a triple, eight RBIs and four walks in the 14 games. He also eased the pressure and attention placed upon rookie Gregory Polanco, who has looked overmatched in general, and particularly against lefties.

Meanwhile, Josh Harrison's continued offensive impact while playing left field, third base and even short (in place of a briefly ailing Jordy Mercer) was a further demonstration of the versatile value that made him an All-Star selection.

What will be interesting in the coming days and weeks is how the ever-creative Hurdle handles his sudden logjam at first base. Alvarez's throwing issues and sagging bat (his slugging and isolated power marks have both dropped more than 80 points from their 2013 level) have helped make Harrison the far more attractive option at the hot corner, leaving Alvarez, Ike Davis (whose power has also disappeared) and Gaby Sanchez to fight for time at first.

"There's a certain method I have in mind," Hurdle said. "Watch it play out, and if you're paying attention, you'll probably have a pretty good chance of figuring it out. It's not complicated by any means. Everybody is going to have to get some at-bats. We're not going to quit on anybody."

Bleak as things might appear in the present, don't quit on these Pirates, now that they're a little bit closer to whole. This is not the same club that cratered in 2011 and '12. Last year's experience of surging to an NL Wild Card spot and reigniting a fan base altered the attitude in the clubhouse.

"If we went through a stretch like this three or four years ago, it would have been demoralizing," Walker said. "But we've got great leaders in here. We can't control who gets hurt, but we can control our preparation and our effort."

Following Wednesday's finale with the Braves, the Pirates will face their biggest test to date -- 12 straight games against their prime division foes (three on the road in Milwaukee, six at home against the Cardinals and Reds and then three in St. Louis). If they can survive that stretch and still be considered a contender, the schedule lightens considerably. The Bucs will play 13 in a row against the Cubs, Phillies and Red Sox in September, an outlook that helps offset spending two-thirds of the final month on the road.

That could turn out to be another reason to smile. For now, getting McCutchen and Cole back in the team picture will suffice as reason enough in otherwise difficult days for the Buccos.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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