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Back in the days when Doug Drabek, John Smiley and Zane Smit

August 7, 1995

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Back in the days when Doug Drabek, John Smiley and Zane Smith were in his rotation, manager Jim Leyland knew his starting pitcher would keep the Pittsburgh Pirates competitive.

This season, with as many as three rookie starters, Leyland isn’t certain if his pitcher will take him into the second inning, much less the ninth.

``We’ve got to have the youngest pitching staff in the history of baseball,″ Leyland said.

Some days, that young pitching is enough to make Leyland wish he still managed the Pirates’ 1990-92 division champions. Other days, like Sunday, Leyland much prefers to think not of the past, but of the future.

Esteban Loaiza, pitching again like he did when he won four straight starts a month ago, shook off a recent run of bad outings to pitch eight effective innings in the Pirates’ 6-3 victory Sunday over Houston.

The Astros’ second loss in 18 hours to a Pirates’ rookie _ John Ericks beat them 3-1 Saturday _ dropped them 6 1/2 games behind NL Central-leading Cincinnati. The Reds swept a doubleheader from Philadelphia.

The Astros outscored the Pirates 42-22 while winning their first five games in Pittsburgh this season, only to lose the final two as Loaiza and Ericks limited them to four runs and 12 hits over 18 innings.

``You can say what you want about the Pittsburgh Pirates, but you look up and they’re playing everybody tough,″ Astros manager Terry Collins said. ``They’ve got good, young pitching and they’re getting better.″

Some days, better. Some days, worse.

Until this weekend, the Pirates’ mostly rookie rotation of Loaiza, Ericks, Steve Parris, Paul Wagner and 10-game winner Denny Neagle hadn’t won in 15 starts since July 22.

Then, following a dreadful stretch of 13 losses in 15 games that included the frightful Dave Clark-Jacob Brumfield outfield collision, Leyland was reminded again why he has only rarely has become discouraged.

``We’ve had our share of struggles,″ Leyland said. ``But we’ve got some plusses. We’ve got something to work with. I still like (Jon) Lieber (now at Calgary); he’s had an atrocious season, but he had a good start the other night. We’ve got Rick White down there, to. We’re starting to stockpile some good, young arms, and that’s good ... if we can get an owner with pockets deep enough to sign some guys, maybe we’ll have something to make a deal.″

But Leyland would block any move to deal Loaiza, who is only 22 and had never pitched above Double-A until this season. Leyland first saw him on a post-strike scouting trip to the minors last fall, and liked him immediately.

When he dropped the overweight White from the rotation in April, Leyland, his coaches and general manager Cam Bonifay discussed possible replacements. But Leyland had only one name in mind.

``In my mind, his stuff was head and shoulders above anybody else we discussed,″ Leyland said.

So far, Loaiza (7-5) has had a typical rookie year. He didn’t make it past the third inning in two of his first five starts, then won four straight decisions and five of six. Then, he lost it again, failing to win in five starts.

``But the last couple of weeks, every pitcher has been out there pitching for his life,″ Leyland said. ``We haven’t been hitting much, and we’ve had a lot of tight games, without many days off.″

Loaiza helped himself by developing a still improving changeup that he used effectively Sunday to complement his fastball and slider.

``I didn’t throw many changeups until today,″ he said. ``They hadn’t seen it before.″

Jay Bell backed Loaiza with a solo homer in the fifth and a two-run drive in the sixth off Mike Hampton (7-4), who had won six consecutive decisions. Orlando Miller’s two homers drove in three Houston runs, but Loaiza didn’t allow any other scoring.

``We’re going to have some rough days,″ Leyland said. ``But we’re going to have some good ones, too.″

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