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For Bucs, it all starts with starters

For Bucs, it all starts with starters

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LOS ANGELES -- The 10-12 record tells so little of the Pirates' story.

For the past 25 days, this has been a club vacillating between drama and embarrassment, tremendous highs and historic lows. There have been three team meetings called and as many mob celebrations on the PNC Park infield after a walk-off win.

It has been wacky and weird, and most of it has defied baseball logic. The Pirates enter Friday having been outscored by 77 runs, a run differential that is by far the worst in the Majors. That number also underscores the pervasive early-season issue.

That theme, of course, would be the starting pitching, which has been downright disappointing up to this point. Baseball is a numbers game, and you need not go any further than the numbers to highlight (or is it lowlight?) the woes of the pitching staff:

The starters' ERA is 7.67, a figure that is nearly two runs higher than any other team in the big leagues. The average number of innings that the Pirates are getting from their starters per game is 4.8. Nine of the 22 starts haven't lasted past the fourth.

All this has led to too many blowout losses and pointed questions about the organization's depth. No, the starting rotation was not expected to rival the Majors' best. But it wasn't expected to be so unreliable either.

Yet, to this point, it has defined 2010.

"This has not been easy to watch," general manager Neal Huntington said. "This has not been easy for our staff. This has been a challenge. This has been about as tough of a stretch as I can remember. In '08, we struggled. It was about three out of five that we had a chance to get a quality start. So far, it's been about two out of five that we've had a chance for a quality start."

"At some point it's got to settle down," manager John Russell said. "It can't keep going this way. We've got too good of guys that have shown they can pitch. At some point it's going to settle down. We just have to try and weather the storm and bounce back."

To its credit, the rotation has strung together three competitive outings over the past three days, a possible sign that stability is on its way. And not coincidentally, all three of those games ended up in the win column.

But with things having been so rough so far, two particular questions arise: What does the club do to continue getting back on track? And can it still recover later?

When it comes to the immediate, the Pirates have already begun tapping into Plan B, Plan C and beyond. Ross Ohlendorf's back injury and Daniel McCutchen's inability to nail down his claim to the rotation's fifth spot forced the Pirates to piece together the rotation from series to series.

As Huntington quipped earlier in Milwaukee earlier this week, "We've had a lot of TBAs this year, which means things are not going well."

Brian Burres, Chris Jakubauskas and Jeff Karstens have all been plucked from Triple-A. None appear to be a long-term answer, though Karstens' first start has the club optimistic that he can be a stabilizing presence for as long as necessary.

"I just took it as an opportunity to come here and pitch and see what happens," Karstens said. "It's not like these guys can't do the job. They're a bunch of talented guys. It's just a matter of it translating."


"It can't keep going this way. We've got too good of guys that have shown they can pitch. At some point it's going to settle down. We just have to try and weather the storm and bounce back."
-- Pirates manager John Russell

Getting Ohlendorf healthy -- he's expected to rejoin the rotation the second week in May -- and finding a way to help Charlie Morton back to where he was in '09 will go a long way in getting this rotation solidified.

The fact that the Pirates have few replacement options for Morton doesn't give the organization much choice but to allow the right-hander to work out his issues in the big league rotation. Kevin Hart, who lost out on a rotation spot this spring, is currently shelved with right biceps tendinitis. McCutchen has command issues to solve. And Donnie Veal still has work to do to make up for lost innings in 2009.

It's not exactly what the Pirates anticipated when they lauded their improved depth this spring. For every problem, there hasn't been the solution the Pirates thought they'd have.

"I guess our depth isn't quite where we felt like it was going to be because of injuries and multiple struggles," Huntington said. "Our challenge is to overcome those multiple struggles and to get these guys back to doing what they do well and have that then translate back at the Major League level."

Still, the most intriguing pitcher is the one who has stayed put with Indianapolis through all this turmoil. Brad Lincoln, the Pirates' top pitching prospect, continues to be another option, but not one the Pirates are going to push.

Management remains insistent that Lincoln's own development -- and not even the most desperate of circumstances at the Major League level -- will dictate the right-hander's arrival.

"The landscape of Major League Baseball is littered with prospects that were rushed to the Major Leagues because of desperation or because of excitement or over-enthusiasm," Huntington said. "Our job is to put people in position to be successful, not because we're desperate. Bringing a young player up before they're ready and now having them struggle and losing their confidence only compounds it and sets us back."

For Lincoln, the goals are transparent. He needs to throw more breaking balls for strikes, and he needs to use more changeups. Lincoln did both in his most recent Triple-A start -- he allowed just one run in seven innings -- which is a step in the right direction. A few more outings like that should have Lincoln, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, knocking on the door.

That's one of reasons why the Pirates remain optimistic that these rotation woes won't last all year. Lincoln is close to arriving. Ohlendorf is near returning. Management expects Zach Duke and Paul Maholm to continue being workhorses. And Morton, McCutchen and Hart could become key pieces if any can master consistency of command.

What the Pirates have to hope, though, is that their bullpen won't be paying the price for what has happened this month by the time the rotation gels. The club's relievers have already combined to throw 90 1/3 innings, the most in the Major Leagues. That averages out to a little more than four innings per game, which, at this pace, would put them at more than 600 for the season.

To put that in perspective, the Pirates' bullpen logged 466 1/3 innings last year.

"We're just waiting for all five starters to kick in and get going," reliever Jack Taschner said. "The way this rotation is set up, we should be fine. This isn't something we foresee being a six-month thing."

Consistency from the rotation would create consistency of bullpen roles, a luxury the Pirates haven't enjoyed much to this point. Closer Octavio Dotel could get the regular work he needs. The 38-year-old Brendan Donnelly wouldn't risk being overworked.

The bottom line: It all starts with the starters. And they know it.

"We've dealt with a lot of adversity already," Duke said, summing up the sentiment of the season's first month. Now, it is how the group will continue to respond that will determine whether this recent stretch is a mere three-week hiccup or a season-defining affliction.

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

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