Anthony Castrovince

Bucs making push with 'next guy up' mentality

Bucs making push with 'next guy up' mentality

CHICAGO -- On the day they lost a 13-inning thriller to the division-rival Cubs, the Pirates also placed staff ace Gerrit Cole on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation. Such adversity has been a staple of their season. Would you believe the Bucs now have zero active starters who were in their season-opening starting five?

It has been a lost year for Cole, a down year for Andrew McCutchen, a year in which the Pirates dealt Francisco Liriano, their Opening Day starter, and Mark Melancon, their dependable closer, at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and a year that has been more about transition than triumph.

So what on earth are the Bucs doing within 1 1/2 games of a National League Wild Card spot?

"It hasn't been linear by any means," manager Clint Hurdle said of Pittsburgh's path to contention. "It's kind of been an Etch-A-Sketch type of season."

The Pirates are surviving it, though, in large part because of what they got back when they made the difficult decision to deal away two important pieces. Moving Liriano to the Blue Jays with a year-plus of contractual control remaining and Melancon to the Nationals just ahead of his free agency was viewed by many in the industry as an effort more to cut costs than to improve in the present day.

But Ivan Nova, acquired in a separate and low-profile deal with the Yankees, has been a revelation in the rotation in the place of the struggling Liriano. And the young lefty acquired in the Melancon deal, Felipe Rivero, has been a shutdown weapon in high-leverage relief.

Rivero escapes a jam

So maybe these guys who put together the second-best record in baseball over the course of 2013-15 despite a strict budget know what they're doing after all, huh?

"We traded some guys away," McCutchen said, "but we got some people in return. It's not like we traded somebody away and got no one in return."

Here's what they got in Nova: a sudden strike-throwing assassin who, in becoming the Pirates' latest success story aided by pitching coach Ray Searage, has put up better numbers than any other starting pitcher who changed hands at this year's Deadline.

Nova threw 63 percent of his pitches for strikes in 97 1/3 innings with the Yankees this year. With the Bucs, he's thrown 70 percent of his pitches for strikes in 31 1/3 innings. That's the backbone of Nova's 5-0 record and 2.87 ERA in five starts with his new club, and the change in leagues and ballparks certainly is a big layer, too.

MLB Central on Nova, Searage

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you don't execute," Nova said. "But [Searage] has been a big help to me."

Perhaps by the offseason, Nova, who came out of Sunday's start in the seventh inning with a left hamstring issue that does not appear to be serious, will have done for his free-agent case what J.A. Happ did for his in a brilliant two-month stint in Pittsburgh. For now, he's sparking a retooled rotation that will have to continue to get by without Cole.

"Next guy up," said McCutchen, whose August upturn (.853 OPS) after a miserable first half is another reason the Pirates remain relevant. "That's what we're all about."

In recent years, the Bucs have been all about fielding a reliable bullpen. Early this year, that proved difficult to do, and the erratic nature of the starting staff, which has used a dozen pitchers over the course of the year, wasn't helping matters.

Lately, though, the 'pen performance has been back up to par. Even after Monday's rough result in Wrigley, the Cubs have the best relief ERA in the NL in the month of August. Tony Watson moved to the closer role to replace Melancon, but even more meaningfully, Rivero has provided sterling setup work -- to the tune of a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings -- since coming over from the Nats.

Watson fans Broxton for the save

Rivero showed flashes of his big-stuff potential in Washington. But with the Pirates, he's been less reliant on the four-seam heat and has shown more trust in his slider and curveball.

"It's a unique arm slot, and it's a power arm," Hurdle said. "He's fun to watch."

Though the Wild Card was quite clearly not the Bucs' intended goal for 2016 after three straight relegations to that round and two quick bounces out of October, the fact that it's still such a realistic target speaks to this organization's adaptability.

"We've learned some great lessons this year that will help us next year," Hurdle said. "It's been a completely different way across the living room. It's like coming home from a road trip and your wife's rearranged the furniture. After you bump your shins a couple times, you say, 'OK, I've got to find a different way to get across the room.'"

If the Pirates can get back to their Wild Card domain, perhaps those lessons will serve them well on the October stage.

This is not how this club planned to get to this point in the season schedule. They hoped for more MVP-type output from Cutch, a rise to NL Cy Young Award status for Cole and, yes, the franchise's first division title since 1992, not the Etch A Sketch. But if things break right, this revised Bucs roster can still draw up a satisfying finish.

"We're not focused on what-ifs," McCutchen said. "We're focused on what is."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for since 2004. 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.