You might remember the following scene from last Wednesday in Detroit:
The Pittsburgh Pirates led 4-1 in the fourth inning after a Travis Snider two-run bomb, giving them a leg up on what could’ve been their third win in a row. A victory at Comerica Park that night would’ve carried the Bucs to a season-high 10 games over .500 and perhaps even closer to overtaking Milwaukee for first place in the National League Central.
Instead, Vance Worley quickly gave up the lead in the fifth, and the Tigers went on to win 8-4. Since then, almost nothing has gone right for the Pirates, who dropped their seventh consecutive game Tuesday night at PNC Park, 11-3 to the Atlanta Braves.
Pittsburgh (64-62) has gone from division challenger and wild-card favorite to playoff long shot in exactly one week. Much like Monday night’s latest Worley implosion, Tuesday also featured a Pirates starter burying his club early.
Francisco Liriano had been Pittsburgh’s best pitcher since the all-star break, but he was punished by a free-swinging Braves lineup for nine runs (seven earned) on 10 hits through four-plus innings. Instead of providing the Pirates the ace-caliber outing they needed, the big left-hander fell woefully short.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen made his return from an avulsion fracture to his ribcage, which was a promising sign for the Pirates prior to the game. So was the re-entry of injured shortstop Jordy Mercer, forcing the Michael Martinez/Jayson Nix/Brent Morel trio out of the lineup at long last.
Still, it hasn’t been the offense that’s let down the Pirates at an inopportune time, it’s been the run prevention. During their losing streak, the Bucs have allowed 46 runs, an average of 6.6 per game. Although Liriano, Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez turned in impressive starts over that span, the rotation has mostly faltered over the past couple weeks, and Pittsburgh’s nine errors during the slump haven’t helped.
Gerrit Cole will try to end that trend Wednesday when he makes his first Pirates appearance since July 4. It’s been a trying season for the MLB sophomore, as a combination of a sore shoulder and a strained lat have made him more of an Indianapolis Indian than a Pittsburgh Pirate since the start of June.
Contrary to popular belief, the season isn’t over yet, even if the Pirates’ first division title since 1992 will have to wait at least another year. Pittsburgh trails first-place Milwaukee by seven games, but the NL’s second wild-card spot remains in reach.
At the same time, this is a serious slump, one that easily reminds of similar late-summer collapses in 2011 and 2012. Much like in those two cases, the Pirates are bleeding runs, which is perhaps the most ominous sign for a baseball team with playoff aspirations.