PITTSBURGH -- Starling Marte, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the other day, "is itching to play."
Tuesday, Marte finally did some scratching: He was back in the Bucs' lineup, at both of his familiar spots, in left field and in the leadoff spot. He finished 1-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the seventh inning in the Pirates' 5-2 loss against the Padres.
Jumping back in after a month's absence without the benefit of any rehab competition is a difficult deal. But the Pirates have to get a read on the extent of postseason contribution they can get from their dynamo and, with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, had to untether him.
"There's a point of time conversations gotta end, and he's gotta go play," said Hurdle, who conceded the challenge of returning without having seen live pitching except in a batting cage. "But that's where we are, and we have to deal with the realistic part of it. He's worked extremely hard, and this is the next test. How long before he has the timing he needs?"
The Pirates didn't expect to be without Marte for a full month when he was stepped on by Arizona's Martin Prado during an attempted steal of third on Aug. 18, badly bruising his right hand. Neither could they have expected to go 15-12 during Marte's absence from the starting lineup. Most of the slack was picked up by Jose Tabata, in whose left-field starts the Bucs were 15-9; Tabata batted .283 in those 24 games and produced 18 runs.
"Tabata has done a very professional job, being the next-man-up and holding down that position," Hurdle said. "But we're all aware Starling's skill set is special; we're a much more dynamic team with him in left field and leading off."
While working his way back step by step, Marte had appeared in seven games, as a pinch-runner and on defense.
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.