Aug 17, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Kevin Frandsen (19) scores a run as Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Ike Davis (15) looks on during the seventh inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Failures On The Margins Hurting Pittsburgh Pirates' Playoff Chances

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As I’ve written many times this summer, the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates are quite different from last year’s model.

That’s not all bad – their offense is much improved from the 2013 version – but in most instances the comparison doesn’t flatter the current team.

Sunday’s excruciating 6-5 loss to the Nationals did a great job of summing up just about every shortcoming these Pirates have. In losing their season-high fifth consecutive game, Pittsburgh put its faulty pitching, defense and depth on full display.

Let’s start in the field. After being one of the most efficient defensive teams in 2013, turning 71.5 percent of balls in play into outs, the Pirates have fallen back to 70.9. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it has dropped them from fifth in that category to 10th, mostly because of the 47 times they’ve allowed opponents to reach on errors, the fifth-highest total in MLB.

It was poor fielding Sunday that squandered another valuable start from Edinson Volquez and tagged reliever Jared Hughes with an undeserved blown save. Hughes did an admirable job in trying to clean up Volquez’s seventh-inning difficulties, but poor throws to the plate by Pedro Alvarez and Ike Davis spoiled those efforts.

Of course, the resilient Pittsburgh offense battled back in the ninth, taking an unlikely lead on a two-run double by Gregory Polanco. But less than 24 hours after all-star Tony Watson had a rare blow-up, Mark Melancon followed suit with a breakdown of his own, forcing extra innings.

It’s ironic that Watson and Melancon crashed to earth, because they’ve been pillars of strength on a pitching staff that has disappointed for various reasons. Yes, the Pirates’ team ERA is right around the MLB average at 3.74, but their pitchers on the whole have contributed the sixth-fewest wins above average (WAA) in baseball because of their subpar strikeout and walk rates.

In short, the Bucs have been tempting fate this season despite churning out decent results on the mound, and it’s catching up to them. Getting Gerrit Cole back in the rotation should help, as would the continued improvement of Francisco Liriano, but the recent failings of Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton counteract that effect.

The bullpen’s shallowness has hurt, too, but depth may be even more of a problem in terms of position players. Once Sunday’s game went beyond the ninth, the Pirates had the likes of Jayson Nix, Michael Martinez and Brent Morel taking up spots in the lineup. One replacement-level journeyman is enough, but three?

I understand that injuries happen and Pittsburgh has been more afflicted than most teams, but the lack of a contingency plan is an indictment of the front office and general manager Neal Huntington. Prospects like Josh Bell and Alen Hanson aren’t quite ready to take the final step, so there needs to be another layer of depth until they are.

Should we have expected the Pirates to surge to the top of the National League Central with the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Cole out of action for significant stretches? No, but considering how impressive the bats have been, they should be better than 64-60 and out of a playoff spot with six weeks to go.

Unlike last year, when the Pirates minded the details en route to 94 wins, this summer has represented a failure on the all-important margins.

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