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A season on the brink (again)

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have been resilient in 2014.

They’ve clawed back from an eight-game-under-.500 hole when many left them for dead. I thought they were cooked when they lost Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole to injury late in the spring. They have somehow become a much worse run prevention team than they were a year ago, added few impact bats, seen home run champ Pedro Alvarez regress his way out of the lineup, and yet have again place themselves in a pennant race.

They’ve kept coming back, but that resiliency is about to be tested.

I sometimes hear arguments made that so-and-so was the Pirates’ real MVP, true first-half MVP, not McCutchen. If McCutchen is to any degree under-appreciate this rib injury threatens to change such valuations.

McCutchen leads the Pirates in Avg. OBP, Slugging, HR, RBIs, runs, hits, triples, doubles and walks. (Sorry, he’s only second in steals). If you like more advanced stats, well, he leads the Pirates in all of those, too. He’s one of the  best five players in the National League.

The Pirates are still six games over .500 but they also hold only a modest +6 run differential, which ranks eighth in the National League.

It’s possible that McCutchen misses just a week. It’s possible he misses the rest of the season. It’s also possible he returns but is never 100 percent the rest of the season. There’s a lot of torque in McCutchen’s violent swing and  it’s an unusual injury. Fangraphs.com’s  Mike Petriello had some recent rib injury comps:

“Tulowitzki missed nearly a month with a rib injury last year; Hanley Ramirezfractured his eighth rib on a Joe Kelly fastball in the first game of the NLCS last year, and still managed to play in five of the six games. (He was completely ineffective while doing so, and of course, the NLCS provides a different sort of time frame when your backup is Nick Punto.) David Wright missed three weeks last spring with a rib injury, but that’s the exact opposite of Ramirez, since there’s no reason at all to rush it in March. Jason Giambi missed a month earlier this year with a rib fracture. Ryan Sweeney missed two months last year. Jacoby Ellsbury had his entire 2010 ruined by rib injuries. Earlier this year, Juan Lagares missed three weeks with a strain, not a fracture.”

McCutchen spun his injury as better than having an oblique, but that seems wildly optimistic. Dr. David Geier told me this injury was likely caused by torque of the oblique muscle tearing muscle and cartilage away from the rib. (It’s unlikely to have been caused directly by the HBP). That’s what an avulsion is – a tearing away from bone.

This is where the manager, sports writer/columnist/ radio talk show host, guy next to you at the bar says ‘other guys have to step up.’ But let’s be real, no one is replacing McCutchen’s void.

And McCutchen’s injury might not even be the most troubling development of Tuesday for the Pirates. (At least the Pirates know he should eventually recover to 100 percent and without surgery.)

Also troubling is the news from Gerrit Cole‘s second rehab start last night.

Coleindy

Is it time to start thinking about shutting Cole down?

 

It’s not so much the shaky line 4 1/3 IP, 10H, 5R, BB, 3K as it was the velocity dip. Cole sat 95-96 mph in the first three innings and touched 97 mph. But his velocity fell to 91-92 in the fourth and fifth innings. Cole did also not reach his scheduled 100 pitches, throwing 74. Cole said the velocity dip was intentional – but his velocity also dipped during his initial injury back in San Diego.

“I don’t have a body of work to back up those type of velocities, so I just wanted to come out with a good pitch count and feel good,” Cole said. “I was trying to get some guys out, but, at the same time, not with the same aggressiveness. Definitely was not full-boar like last time because I think that’s kind of what got me in trouble during the week.”

Cole was actually scheduled to throw Saturday but that start was pushed back to Tuesday. The Pirates were not calling it an injury setback but Cole admitted Tuesday”I felt good after the start but the next day was brutal…..

“The shoulder and arm didn’t recover well, so we worked on some things and tried to clean some things up.”

It still does not seem like Cole (lat/shoulder) is 100 percent. The Pirates have to be very careful with this prized asset. A severe shoulder injury is much more difficult to overcome than a Tommy John.

The Pirates’ pitching staff has essentially been held together with chicken wire, duct tape and Vance Worley.

The Pirates needed Cole’s 4-0, 1.65 ERA last September but they might not be able to count on him or McCutchen the rest of the way. Oh, and the bullpen ….

Yes, the Pirates have overcome challenges before this season. But this feels different.

- TS

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