Upcoming series could determine future

PITTSBURGH — The next four games could determine what direction the Pirates take in the next two months — and beyond.

The first-place Milwaukee Brewers visit for a four-game series that starts tonight at 7:05. The Pirates currently trail Milwaukee by seven games in the National League Central after Sunday’s 4-3 ninth-inning victory over St. Louis.

There’s a potential four-game swing in the gap between the Pirates and Brewers in this series. A sweep gains four games. Being swept adds four games to the deficit.

A split keeps things even. A team that takes three of four will gain two games.

Realistically, the Pirates probably need to win three of four to stay viable in the stumbling division race.

“We want to give this club every chance,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “At the same time, we have to be realistic.”

If the Pirates fall further behind, they’ll probably be more inclined to trade veterans for prospects. If they gain ground, they could pursue experienced players. They have in the past by adding Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneua, J.A. Happ and Neftali Feliz as stretch-run reinforcements.

So while nobody will call a mid-July series critical, it will be important.

“It has to have an impact on which direction we go,” Huntington said.

Ideally, the Pirates would pick up a starting pitcher with a major league resume, as they did with Happ in 2015 and Ivan Nova last year.

They could also use some help in the bullpen, since getting to reliever Felipe Rivero for the ninth inning has been a challenge. They could also use an experienced bat to come off the bench.

“I wish we felt like we were one addition away,” Huntington said.

He did note the Pirates will add an “All-Star caliber player” on Tuesday when Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension for steroids ends.

Marte has been on a minor league rehab assignment that ended Sunday with Class AAA Indianapolis. But there’s no way to know how quickly Marte will be able to get back to speed against major league competition.

He is expected to play regularly, which should push Adam Frazier back to the bench. The other possibility is Frazier could play second more often and Josh Harrison could get some time at third, where David Freese has worn down.

Whatever happens with the roster will be influenced by the outcome of the next four games.

Harrison struggling

The highlight of Harrison’s month has been his trip to the All-Star game.

Otherwise, he’s 5-for-42 (.119) in July and watched Sunday’s game from the bench. Actually, he’s done worse than that since he struck out in both of his All-Star plate appearances.

Harrison, who is known as a bad ball hitter, has fallen into the bad habit of chasing pitchers far outside the strike zone. Opponents have noticed, and they’re tempting him with pitches far off the plate.

“Josh needs to slow, eliminate negative thoughts and quietly reset,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s the best advice I can give him.”

Fast company

Hurdle had high praise for Carlos Martinez, who started for the Cardinals on Sunday.

“He’s not pretty good,” Hurdle said. “He’s really good. I told our coaches during the game that he’s the closest I’ve seen to Rivero from the right side. He can run the velocity up. He can spin it. He can throw a change.”

Kang update

Huntington said the chances that Jung Ho Kang will be able to play for the Pirates this season are “slim to none.”

Kang has been unable to get a work visa because of his third DUI conviction in South Korea.

Third base has been an ongoing issue for the Pirates, but Huntington indicated he would not be interested in Pablo Sandoval, who was designated for assignment by Boston a few days ago.

If Sandoval clears waivers, as expected, he will be a free agent. A team that signs him would only be obligated to pay him the major league minimum salary of $535,000 while the Red Sox would pick up the portion of the $47 million that remains on his contract.

“We’ll stay internally at this point,” Huntington said.

Historical note

Sunday was the 47th anniversary of the Pirates’ first game at Three Rivers Stadium, a 3-2 loss to Cincinnati.

The stadium was demolished in February, 2001.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com