"I know I'm going to hit."
That was Francisco Cervelli back in Bradenton. I'd asked about the Pirates' offense. Challenged him, actually, to lay out a scenario in which the bats wouldn't be the liability all summer long. And that was his response, no trace of regret.
So here we were now again, late Wednesday night, last ones in PNC Park's home clubhouse, well after a third straight loss to the Diamondbacks, 11-2, a fourth straight loss overall. And yeah, we were talking offense again. Or the lack thereof. Because the team's run total of 75 is stuck down at second-worst in all of Major League Baseball, and they've now been held to two or fewer runs a ridiculous eight times in somehow starting out 12-10.
As for Cervelli's contribution ...
"Well, I know I'm going to hit, so ..." he began here before bursting into a laugh, plainly aware of the previous reference. "And I tell you this because I haven't quit yet."
He'd better not have. He's not optional. And he's right that he will hit. Always has.
Look, don't dig too deep into the dumps over this little slump. As I see it, there's simple regression to the mean taking place. Jordan Lyles was no more the best fifth starter in baseball than the Pirates were the best team in the National League, so both being swatted back down to sensibility -- Lyles was pounded for five runs in as many innings on this night -- was painfully predictable.
But regression boomerangs both ways, right?
So what about the offense?
Let's start with Cervelli. In four plate appearances, he did this ...
... and yes, that was an honest-to-mamma-mia basehit at the end of that loop, a roller up the middle that might have felt like a moon shot.
"Yeah, how about that?" he'd say. "I'll take it."
Overall, he's slashing .167/.241/.236 with one home run and two doubles in 72 at-bats. Trending most recently, he's 5 for his past 44.
Trying anything new?
"Anything? I'm trying everything. I'm searching for something, the right rhythm, the right timing."
And what will it look like when starts crawling out?
"Gap to gap. That's me. You'll know it."
It'll come. A year ago, his .259/.378/.431 accounted for the team's second-best OPS of .809, trailing only Gregory Polanco's .839. Regression to the mean will soon be Cervelli's best bud.
But hey, that ought to apply to Polanco, too. He arrived earlier than expected this week from the shoulder rehab -- smiling like a school child, I might add -- and promptly dropped a 4-for-8. Starling Marte, it was learned on this day, will be back sooner than anticipated after that awful collision last week. Corey Dickerson might be another week.
Stop and think about that alone: The Pirates have been playing with none of their regular outfielders. Not one. And in their place Clint Hurdle's been forced to use nine different players -- no kidding -- including Colin Moran in left and poor Jason Martin in center, rambling all over creation in this game as four balls zipped over his head and still found the ground.
When JB Shuck is the mainstay, that's an outfield in distress.
Adam Frazier has been ... OK, I guess, at .263/.341/.368, but he's below his brief career's norms, too. Not an accident. He's been bugged by back spasms, and he's yet to cut loose with the pop he's got. Jung Ho Kang's been an all-or-nothing .169/.242/.417 with four home runs, but this game saw a double and two walks to accompany the requisite home run. Shortstop ... eh, I'm not ready to apply pressure to Cole Tucker so recently removed from Class AA Altoona. But there's more at catcher, not just from Cervelli but also a newly returned Elias Diaz, bearing in mind they were the most productive offensive tandem at their position in the majors.
Oh, right. This guy:
All Josh Bell's done is exceed every expectation but his own. And I'll stand by my spring stance, now more than ever, that no one in the lineup matters more. It's just morphed into a circumstance where he's got to be surrounded by others performing at their own peaks.
I brought this up with Hurdle after the game, the notion that this offense has legitimate upside.
"I agree with that. I do," he replied. "We have some guys we're counting on to provide that offense. Maybe it's Frazier, who's kind of swimming right now, treading water. But you've also got Cervelli, who's shown his offensive capabilities ... Kang, who's shown his capabilities ... Bell's obviously in a good spot. But yeah, we could use some help from a couple other guys, for sure."
"It's been weird," Cervelli said of the line between waiting for the injured players and needing immediate results. "But we've got to stay positive, keep going. When everybody comes back, it's gonna be different."
For now, though ...
"We have to keep going. For a lot of people, they watch us now, maybe they think we don't try. We try every night. Sometimes we try too hard. We've got a lot of players here who just want to stay in the big leagues, and that's when you try too hard. We've just got to relax and do everything one at-bat at a time."
The next at-bat will come against Zack Greinke, by the way. That''ll be in the series finale Thursday, 12:35 p.m.
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