It has been 19 embarrassing – yet, sometimes promising – seasons since the Pittsburgh Pirates advanced to the playoffs, but for the second straight season the Bucs look good coming out of the gate.
Pittsburgh is currently the hottest team in baseball and for the first time this season is atop the National League’s Central Division, along with Cincinnati. With their sweep of Kansas City this weekend, the Pirates improved to five games over .500, thanks in part to the white-hot bat of 25-year-old centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen has 15 hits in his last 27 at-bats against left-handers and has hit 11 home runs since May 8, which is the fourth-most in Major League Baseball during that span. If McCutchen continues to put up MVP-like numbers in the remaining 103 games, he’ll be on pace to get 200 extra-base hits and 100 stolen bases by the end of the year. Only one player in franchise history can claim that feat and his name is Barry Bonds.
The Pirates are an MLB best 12-3 in the last two and a half weeks and are certainly capable of winning the division. But no matter what we say or how many stats we throw out, there is little confidence behind a young team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since George W. Bush’s father was president.
Take last season for instance.
Pittsburgh got off to a solid start last season, thanks in part to a 16-7 stretch that began at the end of June. By July 19 the Pirates were in first place but that’s when it all fell apart for the Buccos. The team went 21-46 the rest of the way and finished the season with a 72-90 record. Blame it on the blown call in a 19 inning game against Atlanta, or possibly the 'dog days of summer,' but whatever the case may be the Pirates simply cannot shake their troubled past.
This past offseason the team’s owners decided to spend a few bucks, something it’s done very little of in recent years. First it was a trade for starting pitcher A.J. Burnett – though New York agreed to pay $20 million of his remaining $33 million contract – then it was the signing of second baseman Clint Barmes, and finally it was the signing of another starter, Erik Bedard, who went on to become the team’s opening day pitcher.
Adding solid starting pitching has proven to be the Pirates’ saving grace so far this season, even if Bedard and Burnett have a history of being injury-prone. The Pirates currently rank third in the NL in team ERA at 3.25 and both pitchers are averaging close to a strikeout per inning between them. As a team, Pittsburgh has allowed two or fewer runs in 22 games this season. Unlike last year, the Pirates have pitchers that aren’t simply flukes, but instead are guys that appear more than able to carry the workload as the season progresses. It’s the offense that worries us.
There are just three players on the Pirates with an on-base percentage higher than .300, which could be the main reason that Pittsburgh ranks last in the majors in runs scored. Their leadoff-hitter, cleanup man and seven-hole hitter (Alex Presley, Garrett Jones and Clint Barmes) have just nine walks and 111 strikeouts. It might take the acquisition of a veteran bat at the trade deadline to help spark the team; someone who can get on base that has some speed.
It certainly will not get any easier for the Pirates who have battled NL Central opponents in 12 of the last 15 games, as Pittsburgh now looks ahead to series against Baltimore, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
We appreciate that the Pirates organization is trying to once again compete in the NL but they’re still several players away from having a legitimate shot at October baseball. Hopefully we’re wrong, as no fans in baseball have suffered as much as Pirates fans in recent years, but it might be a matter of time before the team falls apart and makes another second half decent.
Photo Credit: AP