San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner, left, is congratulated by teammate Buster Posey after scoring during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson
May 04, 2014

PITTSBURGH -- Jonathon Niese is pitching much like the Pittsburgh Pirates are playing this season.

Good one night. Not so good the next.

The left-handers 4.74 ERA in 14 starts would be one of the highest on some major league staffs, but it's actually the lowest among the Pirates' starters.

They're counting on him to lower it -- and keep them competitive -- when they play the San Francisco Giants on Thursday following a recent string of poorly pitched games.

Niese (6-4) will oppose Giants rookie right-hander Albert Suarez (2-1), who will be making his fourth major league start. Suarez, replacing the injured Matt Cain in the Giants' rotation, has a 3.69 ERA in six combined appearances this season. He's not allowed a homer in his eight career appearances.

That certainly wasn't the case for Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who gave up a homer in each of the first three innings as San Francisco fell behind the Pirates 6-1 on Wednesday night.

But Francisco Liriano, whose struggles have mirrored those of the Pirates' staff of late, gave up four runs over five innings, and reliever Jared Hughes came on to give up three runs in the sixth, finished off by Joe Panik's two-run double, and the Giants won their 10th in 11 games, 7-6.

The Pirates dropped their 12th in 14 games, a losing run marked by poor starting pitching. The night before, Pirates rookie Wilfredo Boscan yielded seven runs in three-plus innings as the Giants pounded out a major league season-high 22 hits in winning 15-4.

"As a group, they're starting to get better and better," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said of his hitters, who've put up 34 hits in two games. "You see the numbers going up and up, (and) we're clicking a little bit better offensively."

And, in more bad news for the Pirates, right-hander Gerrit Cole -- the staff ace -- won't be ready to come off the disabled list when he's eligible on Sunday as he mends from a triceps injury.

So a strong start from Niese would be a big help before the Pirates begin a three-game weekend series at PNC Park against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw likely pitching either Saturday or Sunday.

How do they get out of this?

"We just have to focus and get in here early every day," Pittsburgh outfielder Gregory Polanco said. "We have to play it game by game. We can't focus on the past. We have to focus on tomorrow and come in ready to win (Thursday)."

Polanco had a three-run homer among his three hits Wednesday.

Niese gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings in losing his last start against the Chicago Cubs 4-3 on Saturday.

His last win came against his former club June 7, when he pitched seven shutout innings in beating the New York Mets 3-1. He then proceeded to lose to the Cardinals 8-3 on June 12 during his last start at PNC Park. He is 2-3 with a 2.51 ERA in nine career appearances against San Francisco.

Might help be on the way soon? The Pirates are intentionally taking their time bringing up their top pitching prospects, although they did bring up right-hander Jameson Taillon on June 8.

But right-hander Tyler Glasnow is getting closer to the majors, throwing a combined 12 no-hit innings in his last two starts -- seven on Wednesday night and five on Friday, though he has walked 16 in his last 17 innings.

It would help the Pirates if they started getting more consistent offense from former Nationa League MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting .174 (8-of-46) with 15 strikeouts in his last 12 games.

The Pirates also might get back left fielder Starling Marte, who sat out Wednesday with left leg discomfort. He grounded out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning.

"He could hit and if he would've gotten on base, we would've pitch ran for him, but he was good to swing the bat," manager Clint Hurdle said.

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