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Silver linings playbook

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SOUTH HILLS – So that felt like a must-win game and important comeback last night for the Pirates, right? This weekend feels like it could be a time when it’s decided whether the Pirates remain in the division race or not.

In this space and elsewhere, the Pirates’ challenges that have led to this second-half slide have been addressed. But if you’re looking for reasons to believe why the Pirates can perhaps rebound again and finish as a 90-winish team and in the postseason picture, well, that hasn’t been discussed as much.

If you squint hard enough, there have been some silver linings lining these dark clouds hanging over the club.

There are several such glimmers:

*While Andrew McCutchen has gone hit-less in his first two games back from the disabled list, he has appeared to make a remarkable recovering from what initially sounded like a serious and painful injury, an avlusion fracture of rib cartilage.

McCutchen’s swing has tremendous torque that creates that rare batspeed and he’s swung and seemingly near 100 percent, driving the ball to the opposite-field warning track in his first game back on Tuesday. McCutchen has also been able to throw with his what appears to be his typical arm strength.

I had my doubts as to whether he was 100 percent – the history of players returning quickly and performing well from rib-related injuries is not good – but he looks like himself, which is more than many expected. Remember, some estimated that he could miss nearly the rest the of season. The Pirates could not overcome that loss. McCutchen beat almost everyone’s timetables and that is critical.

*Gerrit Cole returned yesterday and looked at times like the Cole we saw in the second half of last season.

He maintained his velocity, which was key, as it had declined when he was first injured on June 4 and again during some early rehab starts. His 93rd pitch of the game traveled at 98 mph.

I thought Cole located fairly well and his slider appeared to have good shape. He was efficient with his pitches, working through seven innings. He did not look all that rusty (and he did have four rehab starts). The Pirates have to hope his arm recovers arm. That’s the next hurdle.

The Pirates need impact arms. They need their starts to perform like stars. They need Cole to be something like the guy he was last September. He took a big step toward being that guy on Wednesday and he’ll have to continue to do so as the team’s depth has been further eroded with the loss of Charlie Morton.

*The Pirates’ need for depth is well-documented and Travis Snider has risen to the occasion to provide outfield depth. He looks like the guy this spring who was finally starting to put it together. He’s forced Gregory Polanco to the bench  for two straight games, and you can argue he should start until his bat cools. … Clint Barmes is also getting close to a return, which should improve infield depth, and help keep Michael Martinez and/or Brent Morel in Indy.

Yes, there are some ifs here, but if McCutchen is truly healthy and gets back to MVP form, if Cole can perform like a front-of-the-rotation arm, if Francisco Liriano (minus the Tuesday start) continues his second half performance, if they can keep Martinez and Morel in Triple-A, the Pirates can still be playing in October. I’m saying there’s still a chance.

- TS

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