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Pirates hoping to gather steam for stretch run

Club finally healthy after weathering storm during absences of key regulars

Pirates hoping to gather steam for stretch run play video for Pirates hoping to gather steam for stretch run

PITTSBURGH -- When comparing the Pirates' current standing to their status a year ago -- nine fewer wins, third in the National League Central versus leading the division by a game -- words such as "regression" and "collapse" inevitably enter the conversation.

Yes, some performance issues have had a role in nudging the Bucs to the edge of the postseason races. Most notably, Pedro Alvarez's virtual disappearance and the bullpen's recurring nightmares.

A year ago, Alvarez already had 31 homers on his way to a share of the NL crown (he has 15 in 2014, the last of them on July 11). Relievers have already allowed more homers (38) than all last season (36), one reason the Pirates have lost seven games they've led into the eighth inning, something that happened only four times in 2013.

However, there is yet another number more responsible for the downturn: 59.

That is the number of game days the Bucs have lost to time spent on the disabled list by members of their regular starting lineup. The actual attrition is considerably greater, when remembering the days the staff held out hope for quick recoveries by Andrew McCutchen (avulsion rib fracture) and Neil Walker (lower-back tightness) before finally placing them on the DL.

All last season, Pittsburgh lost only 32 games to sidelined regulars -- making health one of the keys to a 94-win season by a team with an acknowledged lack of depth in Major League talent.

That gives the Pirates a razor-thin margin of error when it comes to injuries.

It was absolutely not an accident that the Bucs' peak of nine games above .500 in '14 was immediately followed by their season low -- a seven-game losing streak snapped with Wednesday night's walk-off win over Atlanta.

The Pirates were without a third of their lineup throughout that stretch, and getting through it with their playoff hopes still alive consoled manager Clint Hurdle.

"I'm never satisfied," Hurdle said, "but I'm pleased with how others have stepped up to get us through that period."

A small part of the "bench" played a major role in it: Travis Snider, previously relegated to primarily pinch-hitting, stepped into the regular outfield and is on an 11-game hitting streak, during which he has gone 18-for-41 (.439).

The rest of the bench has, frankly, been an eyesore. During the seven-game slide, Michael Martinez, Brent Morel and Jayson Nix combined to make four starts and went 0-for-17.

The trio's defensive versatility added some value to its presence through the injuries, with shortstop Jordy Mercer also missing considerable time with a tight right forearm. But Martinez and Morel, who have already returned to the Minors as McCutchen and Gerrit Cole came off the DL, have been able to offer little help. The same goes for Nix. In 53 games and 96 at-bats, they had 12 hits.

So the Bucs classically found themselves treading water for 2 1/2 weeks, managing to avoid drowning until the regulars returned and offered a branch.

Another silver lining: Hurdle is maneuvering for September, even resting Walker and catcher Russell Martin on Wednesday as planned, despite the ongoing losing streak. The injury-forced layoffs for McCutchen, Walker and Cole will have them fresher than usual for the stretch run.

"This is all about the challenge of playing a 162-game season. We all know what's at stake. We're playing for something," said Hurdle, who, given that agenda, actually was glad that key players owned up to injuries rather than try and play heroes through them.

"That's one of the things we've tried to build since I've been here: trust. And you create real trust during the adversity," Hurdle said. "To be able to sit Andrew or Walker down in that chair [in my office] and talk to them about how they're feeling, that was important.

"I had conversations with them along the lines, 'I don't want you for one minute to think there's any urgency from me or from [general manager Neal Huntington] that you just gotta get out there and play, that it's the only way we can stay in this thing.'"

They've stayed in that thing. Now all the parts are back, ready to try to make up the ground lost during their costly absences.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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