PITTSBURGH - When Ray Searage was promoted to full-time Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach last fall, his greatest challenge was to turn around a rotation that had the worst earned run average in the major leagues the previous year.
Now that its ERA ranks among the top five in the National League, his next minor miracle will be to keep it there.
If the team is to remain in contention the rest of the way, then the staff in general and the rotation in particular will have to maintain a pace similar to the one that it set in the first half of the season.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Before becoming the pitching coach of the Pirates in 2010, Ray Searage held the same position with the Altoona Curve from 2006-07.
"Believe me, I know it," Searage said. "There's no doubt about it."
As he readily admits, it's a task that's easier said than done.
Thus far, the good news is that the nucleus of the staff has had no serious injuries to speak of. And the not-so-good news is that it has had no serious injuries to speak of. Because the staff has experienced unusually good health to this point, a number of pitchers are on a pace to establish career highs in appearances or innings pitched or both.
Tonight: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh, 7:05 p.m.
Pitchers: Cubs RHP Rodrigo Lopez (1-2) vs. Pirates RHP James McDonald (5-4)
As the regular season progresses, the prospect for tired arms becomes a concern for any major league team. In this case, it's even greater because of the steady workloads coupled with a lack of major league experience for several staff members.
Among the five-man rotation, only Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm pitched as many as 123 innings in one season at this level.
"A lot of our guys will break some barriers and personal milestones, which is good, but they're also in uncharted waters," Searage said. "For now, we have to monitor them, keep an eye on them. We'll have to watch how the balls come out of their hands and how their bodies react to the work that they're given."
The process began in earnest last month, when Searage took precautions based on performance and feedback. He monitored pitch counts and days of rest more closely. Rather than take part in the normal bullpen sessions, which are more arduous in nature, now pitchers may throw on flat ground or take part in long toss between starts if necessary.
"We also have to keep our eyes on the relievers," Searage said. "Chris [Resop] and Jose [Veras] are at 40 games already. We have to give them some days off and try to rotate them in order to give them the rest that they need."
Here's where the starters are at present:
Correia: He is on a pace for 210 innings, which would surpass his career high of 199 in the 2009 season. The veteran has a 4-2 record in his last seven starts, but he pitched more than six innings in only one of them.
"He has pitched 200 innings before, but that was two years ago," Searage said. "Every year brings a different challenge. I've got that in the back if my mind, but I'll watch him. He grinded out his last two starts, so those are red flags."
+ Maholm: At his current rate, he'll pitch 212 innings, which is fairly comparable to his average of 195 in the last three seasons.
"Paul doesn't rely on his fastball and has been around awhile, so there's less concern about him. If anyone on our staff can pitch 200 innings without an issue, he's probably at the top of the list."
+ Jeff Karstens: One year removed from a shoulder problem, he's on a pace to pitch a career-high 184 innings. The more immediate issue is a sore left knee, which was struck by a batted ball in a recent start. He logged at least 6 2/3 innings in each of his last seven appearances.
"He didn't move into the rotation until nearly a month into the season, but because of what he has done lately, the All-Star break will come at a good time for him. He's a veteran guy who has pitched in different roles, so he knows how to make adjustments."
+ James McDonald: At his current rate, he will pitch 171 innings, nearly double the 92 of a year ago. He hasn't pitched as many as seven innings in a game this season. His heaviest workload was 141-plus innings in Class A ball five years ago.
"James got a bit of a late start out of spring training, so he has less wear and tear than most of the others," Searage said. "Because he hasn't started in the major leagues for an entire season, he's another guy that we'll watch closely. My eyes will tell me how far he can go."
Charlie Morton: He's on a pace for 181 innings, four more than his combined total at the Triple A and major league levels a year ago. Since June 1, he has started only six games.
"He's a bit like James in that he never has been a starter from April to September in the major leagues," Searage said. "Twice he pitched on 10 days' rest, and that should help him later."
If the uncharted waters become rough seas in the weeks ahead, the team could turn to a six-man rotation as a short-term remedy. In recent days, there have been internal discussions about the unorthodox format, which a few major league teams with deeper staffs have tried this season.
"It can be good every once in awhile in order to give them an extra day off to fill their gas tanks, but it would have to be a short-term answer," Searage said. "Usually, guys find their rhythm in five days. If they get too strong, it makes it difficult for them to get their timing down. I don't see any alarms right now, but we might have to address that later. I'd be willing to give it a shot if we had to and see how it played out, but we're not at that point yet."
In farmhand Brad Lincoln and veteran Ross Ohlendorf, the staff has the potential for two more movable pieces after the All-Star break. Eventually, there will be a need for another starter along the way, and either one may be able to fill the role.
As an emergency starter, Lincoln improved his chances in a solid performance against the Washington Nationals last weekend. Currently on the disabled list, Ohlendorf continues to built arm strength in his recovery from a strained right shoulder, which he sustained in his second start of the season.
"Ross is a wild card because he can pitch out of the bullpen or make a spot start if we need him," Searage said. "He could give us a fresh arm. If you look at what Lincoln did in the doubleheader last week . . . Good gosh, he saved our behinds. Like Ohley, he can help us as a starter or a reliever. The situation will dictate which way we go, but the more options we've got, the better we'll be because of it."