PITTSBURGH -- As do most teams, the Pirates usually celebrate and depend on the contributions of all 25 men. However, it's not possible to ignore the fact that their current slide has coincided with the absences of two regulars.

Since Starling Marte was shelved by a strain of his right oblique muscle, the Bucs are 4-10 entering Tuesday night's game. That includes a 2-5 skid since second baseman Neil Walker also went down with lower-back tightness on Aug. 27.

Have the Pirates -- 66-54 and holding down the second National League Wild Card spot when Marte went out -- missed that duo more than they could have imagined?

"I felt it would be a challenge to play without them," manager Clint Hurdle admitted. "Marte was showing you things you want to see -- defensively, offensively -- and I would've liked to have seen him continue to play through. And Walker ... he does what he does."

They both near returns. Marte jumped into the rehab portion of his recovery Tuesday night, batting leadoff with State College. Walker continued to work out at PNC Park, with hopes of his weekend comeback still in play.

"Every team is losing guys," Hurdle said. "We see it all over the place. Then you go to your depth and see how you respond there."

Walker's loss has been particularly hard to take, because he has been restless in the clubhouse.

"It will help when the healthy Walker shows up, not the one that's ornery because he can't play," said Hurdle, grinning. "This has been more challenging for him than for anyone else. A kid being from here, to get to this point of the season and where we are and being unplugged. Missing has been hard for him."

Jones feeling comfortable at plate on current tear

PITTSBURGH -- Perhaps people like Garrett Jones lack the flamboyance, are too blue-collar -- or, in Clint Barmes' description of his own play, too "vanilla" -- for their hot streaks to resonate beyond a box score.

But Jones, who spent the first couple months as a platoon first baseman, is quietly authoring an impressive season. The last week hasn't been too quiet: Entering Tuesday night's game, Jones had hit .455 (10-for-22) since last Tuesday.

That tear had raised his season average to .291, second best on the Pirates and nearly 40 points above the career mark with which he had begun the year.

Jones was also coming off consecutive three-hit games, having been the only one of the Pirates to solve Houston righty Edgar Gonzalez in Monday's 5-1 loss.

"I'm just feeling comfortable. I'm seeing the ball well," Jones said.

And seeing it big, too, manager Clint Hurdle chimed in.

"When you're swinging the bat well, the ball's bigger and everything seems to slow down," Hurdle said. "He's in a very good place at the plate now. He's aggressive within the strike zone and has a lot of confidence."

Jones' 23 homers have already set a career high, and he joins Pedro Alvarez (27) and Andrew McCutchen (24) in the first trio of Pittsburgh teammates in the 20-plus circle since 2008, when the threesome consisted of Nate McLouth (26), Adam LaRoche (25) and Jason Bay (22).

"I'm relaxed and my timing feels good. My path to the ball feels good, so I'm just trying to maintain that and keep it going," Jones said.

Worth noting

• Right-hander Chad Qualls aced his rehab "start" for Indianapolis on Monday, striking out the side in the first -- including Joey Votto, the Reds star on his own rehab assignment with Louisville. Qualls will throw a bullpen session Wednesday, a simulated game on Friday and be activated on Sunday -- the day before the Bucs open a series in Cincinnati against the Reds and Votto, who was activated Tuesday.

• With Wandy Rodriguez following Jeff Locke to the mound Tuesday, the Pirates had left-handers start consecutive games for the first time since Sept. 25-26, 2010, when Zach Duke and Paul Maholm faced the Astros at PNC Park.

• Monday night's steal of third base by Indianapolis reliever Jose Diaz -- all 300 pounds of him -- was the pregame talk of the Bucs' clubhouse. "Book and movie coming," promised manager Hurdle.

Last word

"I say 'quit' because only great players 'retire.' I quit. They stopped calling, so I quit. 'I'll show you -- I won't play any more.'"
-- Hurdle, the former first baseman-outfielder, recalling the end of his playing career at the age of 30.