PITTSBURGH -- An unmistakable symptom of the Pirates' struggles from mid-April to mid-May was short-winded starting pitching. Consequently, the wind under their wings since the calendar flipped to June has been the length they have been getting out of their rotation.
The contrast has really been remarkable. For an extended stretch, the Bucs could not get any starter past the fifth. Now, seven- and eight-inning starts are commonplace.
Manager Clint Hurdle attributed the switch -- beyond the notable arrivals of Jeff Locke and Vance Worley to replace the released Wandy Rodriguez and injured Francisco Liriano -- to a little group therapy.
"We met, and revisited our core convictions as a pitching staff, reminded them what we need to do -- going to spots, strike one, downhill angle, getting people out quick," Hurdle said. "When you don't get results you want, you get on your heels a little bit. They found their way back to being bold in everything they do. And when you start getting results, that helps the confidence."
Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage boiled the difference down to a simpler notion: Russell Martin's absence for a month with a strained left hamstring injury.
"He knows our pitchers so well, they don't have to do any thinking on the mound, just follow his lead," Searage said. "When Russell was out, they were a little unsure, hesitant, were wasting too many pitches."
No disrespect to Tony Sanchez, who was the primary catcher during Martin's absence, nor to backup Chris Stewart. They simply had not had the prior opportunities to get inside the pitchers' heads as completely.
In Sanchez's 14 starts from April 26 to May 22, Pirates starters averaged five innings, making it through the sixth four times.
Side session to test Liriano's rehab readiness
PITTSBURGH -- Three weeks after landing on the disabled list with a strained left oblique muscle, southpaw Francisco Liriano on Monday will take his next step toward returning to the Pirates' rotation.
It just isn't known whether it will be in Indianapolis or in Busch Stadium.
Liriano, who reported no issues following Wednesday's 73-pitch simulated game, is due to throw a side session on Friday. Depending on how that exercise goes, he will either go on Minor League rehab assignment to Triple-A, and face Lehigh Valley, or go through another sim game prior to the Bucs' game in St. Louis.
At either place, Liriano is looking to stretch out to 85 pitches, across five or six innings.
"We're considering the rehab game; it just hasn't been confirmed," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Let's see how his bullpen goes."
"I'm very happy with the way I felt [Wednesday]," Liriano said. "I'm very happy with where I'm at right now. … So far, so good. The first couple of days, right when I started throwing [there was a little hesitation], I didn't want to get hurt again. But now, I feel more free mentally; I don't feel it at all. Everything feels good now, [I'm] pitching Monday, and we'll see how it goes."
If Liriano throws in the rehab game, and convinces the staff that one is enough, he would be on track to potentially jump into the rotation during the Pirates' final pre-All-Star break series, in Cincinnati.
That seems highly doubtful for a couple of reasons, but the effectiveness of the current quintet in particular removes the need to hurry Liriano back prior to the four-day All-Star break.
"I don't want to get in front of us," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I want to make sure that we're good with him and we give him the time -- the mound time -- he needs to get confidence back in his body, his arm, his delivery, all those things. We'll continue to take it one outing at a time."
First number, last word
7: Shutouts the Pirates have been involved in this season, two for and five against; in contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals lead MLB with 25 shutouts.
"Games are hard to win up here. A lot of it has to do with when you play people. Sometimes people aren't healthy; sometimes they just aren't playing well. But to think you have an advantage, you're missing the boat about competition." -- Hurdle, whose Pirates were 9-3 through Wednesday in a stretch of playing teams with the poorest records in the Majors.
• The Pirates have reached agreements with six more international free agents, bringing to seven their acquisitions since the signing period began Wednesday.
Except for Brian Souse, a right-hander from Panama signed for $160,000, the prospects hail from the Dominican Republic: Catcher Gabriel Brito (signed for $200,000), lefty Domingo Robles ($175,000), shortstop Christopher Perez ($150,000), right-hander Jerry De Lo Santos ($100,000) and lefty Roger Santana ($100,000).
• Martin made his third straight start since taking three days to recover from a left-shoulder extension he sustained on a slide into second base last Friday.
"I'm OK. Good enough to play," Martin said with a wry smile.
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.