The Pittsburgh Pirates have made a recent habit of playing better in the first half of the season than they have in the second.
That script played out to disappointing effect in 2011 and especially 2012, when the Pirates’ late-summer slumps cost them the playoff positioning they had worked hard to attain. There were some shaky moments in August and September last year, too, but the Bucs battled back to finish strongly enough to clinch home-field advantage in the National League wild-card game.
The Pirates’ start-fast-then-hang-on pattern definitely generated its share of indigestion among their damaged fanbase, but it’s evident the old game plan won’t work this year if the Bucs have hopes of making it another exciting September (and October) at PNC Park.
To their credit, the Pirates have responded to this fact, going 12-4 since June 21 to make the playoffs more than just a dream. FanGraphs’ postseason projections give Pittsburgh a 42.5 percent chance to at least claim a wild-card spot, while Baseball Prospectus is a little more sober, calling the Pirates’ playoff pursuit a 1-in-3 shot, approximately.
Either way, it’s a vast departure from last year, when the Pirates’ torrid June made them a near lock in terms of playoff probability, a figure that never dropped below 90 percent even when they stumbled a few times. They did end up surrendering the NL Central to the Cardinals, but there wasn’t any real doubt that 2013 would mark the end of quiet Octobers on the North Side.
This summer it seems the Pirates (47-42) will have to battle the odds all the way to the finish. Even though they’ve gone 37-14 since May 1, they still trail the Giants (49-40) and Nationals (48-40) by a couple games for the NL wild-card positions.
Further lessening their chances: the Cardinals (48-42) and Reds (46-42) are making the Central race a four-team affair, unlike last year when all three teams in the division over .500 made the postseason in one form or another. In short, no one in the division except the Cubs is going to be an “easy” matchup in the final three months.
Following Monday night’s painful loss in St. Louis, the Pirates still have three games left against the Cards and three in Cincinnati before the upcoming break. How they handle this week will shape the NL playoff battle in the unofficial second half of the season.
Following the all-star game, the Pirates play 21 combined games against the Giants, Nationals, Cardinals and Reds – including two series apiece against the latter two. Pittsburgh also has 12 total games vs. NL division leaders (Braves, Brewers, Dodgers) and four against the AL Central-pacing Tigers.
The available playoffs spots will be there for the taking, but instead of trying to hold off challengers, the Bucs will be the pursuers this time around. A little drama never hurt anyone, right?
Tags: Pittsburgh Pirates