For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 2013 season just got real.
It’s probably coincidence, but immediately after winning two in a row in Milwaukee to reach the elusive 81-win plateau, the Bucs have looked about as bad as they have all season. The Pirates’ four-game losing streak, including three painful ones at St. Louis over the weekend, matches their longest of the year.
Not since starting the season 1-5 has Pittsburgh looked so lifeless. But this acute slump has been a continuation of a larger trend: the Pirates have gone 11-17 over the past month, dropping from four games ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Central to 1 1/2 games behind.
That kind of course correction isn’t surprising, as the Pirates have outperformed their peripherals all season long. Even as they rose to a season-best 26 games over .500 on Aug. 8, their underlying numbers were indicative of a .550 winning percentage team, not .600. As it stands today, only the Red Sox and Braves have won 60 percent of their games.
It’s fortunate the Pirates overachieved as long as they did, because their cushion on a wild-card spot is still eight games over their nearest pursuer, the Nationals, with just 20 games to play. The Bucs also retain an edge, albeit slight, over the Reds for the right to host the one-game playoff Oct. 3.
A look back at recent MLB playoff history suggests September records have little to do with how teams perform in October. The world champion 2000 Yankees and 2006 Cardinals prove you don’t have to be flying high as the regular season ends to reach the mountaintop.
However, if the Pirates hope to deep into their first postseason in 20 years, it would greatly benefit them to at least host the wild-card game, if not avoid it altogether by stealing the division. But are they strong enough to get back to winning baseball over the next three weeks?
It’s complicated. With the exception of the last two games, the Pirates offense has shown significant signs of life, boosting its ranks in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS to league-average levels. The Bucs have put five or more runs on the board eight times in the last 17 games, even though they are still 22nd of 30 teams in that category for the season.
On an individual basis, Andrew McCutchen has been outstanding for about six weeks, while the additions of Marlon Byrd and a healthy Jose Tabata have helped mitigate the loss of Starling Marte to a hand injury. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have done about what you’d expect from them, and Justin Morneau has had his moments as well.
But as the offense has slightly trended upward, the Pirates’ run prevention has dropped. Most of that is due to middling starting pitching, which has dropped the team ERA from first to third in the MLB rankings. The Bucs continue to lead baseball in OPS against, but they’re in the bottom third of walks allowed, and those free baserunners are starting to score more frequently.
Recently, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett have run hot and cold at the top of the rotation. Jeff Locke was his old walking-a-tightrope self in his return to the majors Saturday, and the resurgent Charlie Morton suffered an undisclosed foot injury that cut short his staggering Sunday start.
Rookie righty Gerrit Cole has been somewhat dependable, although he’s rarely dominant. (He pitches Monday night in Texas against the oft-spectacular Yu Darvish.) Other starting options include Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez and the rehabbing Wandy Rodriguez. The Pirates may need all three to duct-tape their rotation back together for its final four turns.
Bottom line? For as much as the Pirates’ bats have enlivened lately, they will struggle to deliver wins without the pitching staff stabilizing. If it does, Pittsburgh is still a division contender and a serious threat to push for the NL pennant. If not, the Bucs will struggle to win half of their remaining games and likely take to the road for a winner-take-all pulse-accelerator.
Despite predicting the Pirates would win the Central exactly a month ago, I see the need to adjust expectations. The Pirates will win more than they lose the rest of the way, but it won’t be enough to overtake the Cardinals. Get ready for a wild-card showdown with the Reds.