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Pirates’ pitchers helping themselves at bat

Francisco Liriano's .348 batting average is higher than any qualified Pirates position player. TNS

Francisco Liriano's .348 batting average is higher than any qualified Pirates position player. TNS



Francisco Liriano's .348 batting average is higher than any qualified Pirates position player. TNS

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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The Pittsburgh Pirates play in the National League, where baseball is played the way it used to be — without a designated hitter.

But unlike most NL teams, there are no automatic outs in this lineup.

It’s no secret this season the Pirates have an explosive offense. The team leads the NL with an impressive .284 batting average and features four regular starters hitting above .300 — Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison and John Jaso.

The big names in the lineup get paid to produce at the plate, but no one expected the Pirates’ pitching staff to do the same.

While the Pirates’ pitchers have posted a 4.11 ERA through the first 49 games — a far cry from last year’s 3.21 team ERA — the team’s starting pitchers are making up for their decreased production on the mound by stepping up at the plate. Every starting pitcher on the Pirates started the week batting at least .125, higher than the 2014 major league average for pitchers of .122.

The two pitchers leading the Pirates’ rotation have also been leading the way with the lumber.

Staff ace Gerrit Cole is hitting .200, punctuated by a crucial three-run home run in his last start. And veteran lefty Francisco Liriano — whose ERA has ballooned from 3.38 the last two years to 4.63 this year — is hitting .348, better than any qualified position player on the team.

The pitchers are keeping the lineup moving, and the rest of the lineup is reaping the benefits. Opponents can’t afford to pitch around the No. 8 hitter in the Pirates’ lineup, because the pitcher in the No. 9 spot is not an automatic out.

This keeps the offense in rhythm, and it is a big reason the Pirates entered this week seven games over .500 at 28-21 despite giving up nearly a full earned run per game more than last season.

While the Pirates’ starting pitchers have been providing run support all season, the best example came last Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Cole entered the game against the high-powered Arizona offense riding a three-game winning streak, but ran into some trouble early.

Cole gave up a run on back-to-back doubles to start the game, but stranded runners on second and third to limit the damage. In the second inning, he retired Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt with the bases loaded to keep it a one-run game.

In the bottom half of the inning, the Pirates’ fiery right-hander got a chance to help his team’s cause and took advantage of it.

With two on and one out, Arizona lefty Patrick Corbin challenged Cole with a 94-mph fastball over the plate. Cole turned on the pitch and blasted it 409 feet into the center field bullpen for the second home run of his career.

With one swing of the bat, Cole gave the Pirates a 3-1 lead and completely changed the complexion of the game.

The Diamondbacks made Cole work, forcing him to come out of the game after throwing 108 pitches in five innings. But he repeatedly got out of jams and left with that 3-1 lead still intact.

Arizona struck back for two runs off reliever A.J. Schugel in the top of the sixth to tie the game 3-3, costing Cole a shot at his sixth win of the season. But the Pirates’ offense responded with a pair of runs in the bottom half and three in the eighth to clinch an 8-3 win and series sweep.

“Everybody’s stepping up, coming in,” Andrew McCutchen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the game. “It’s not just one or two guys, it’s the whole team. Everyone’s doing their job on the pitching side and on the offensive side.”

Cole’s three-run shot was the first homer this season by a Pirates pitcher, but the staff has shown they are all capable of producing with the bat in their hands.

If the Pirates want to win the division and avoid a fourth straight Wild Card Game, though, the pitchers will need to be just as successful on the hill as they have been in the batter’s box.

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Pirates’ pitchers helping themselves at bat