Jun 14, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
In baseball, 1-0 games have a way of standing out in memory – especially if they’re wins.
Just looking back at the past two years for the Pittsburgh Pirates, two 1-0 victories come to mind almost instantly: Gerrit Cole‘s September 2013 gem at Texas that clinched the Bucs’ first winning season in 20 years; and Neil Walker‘s Opening Day 10th-inning walkoff homer in 2014.
It’s unlikely that the Pirates’ twin 1-0 extra-inning wins this weekend at PNC Park will prove as indelible as the games listed above, but this more recent tandem still tells its own compelling story.
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Although the Pittsburgh offense has fallen back into a state of hibernation, the team that most observers thought would compete for its third straight postseason berth is in position to do just that after winning 17 of its past 22.
Just two National League teams have more wins than the Pirates’ 35: St. Louis (41) and Los Angeles (37). As a result, the Bucs hold the league’s top wild-card spot with exactly 100 games to go.
The first two weeks of the Pirates’ ongoing resurgence were built on balance, with impressive run scoring and run prevention in equal measure.
However, since scoring 10 combined runs during the first two games of their series at Atlanta from June 5-7, the Bucs have plated just 12 in their past seven games. That level of paucity is a recipe for a slump, but the Pirates remarkably went 5-2 over that span.
The series sweep over the Phillies resembled squeezing blood from a stone, with the two 1-0 results sandwiching a 4-3 win Saturday afternoon that saw the Pirates score three of those runs without the ball leaving the infield.
“Small ball” doesn’t even adequately describe how the Bucs stretched their winning streak to four ahead of Monday’s interleague series opener against the White Sox, but it’ll have to do for our purposes.
If you squint a little bit, this year’s Pirates team is looking a lot like the 2013 version that was more formidable wearing gloves than holding bats. That team allowed the second-fewest runs in MLB while ranking in the middle of the pack by most offensive measures.
Whereas last year’s team pushed for the playoffs with a potent offense, this spring and summer has represented a return to the form of two years ago. The Pirates are second in the big leagues in runs allowed (3.31 per game), earned-run average (2.83) and the context-neutral ERA+ metric, where their 133 score indicates the staff is producing at 33 percent above league average.
This shouldn’t be too surprising, as the cast of characters on the mound more closely resembles 2013, especially in the starting rotation. Three-year Pirates mainstays Francisco Liriano and Cole remain, with A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton returning from Philadelphia and a bad hip, respectively.
(Jeff Locke is back, too, but he is certainly not on the unsustainably-good early-season pace that earned an all-star nod in 2013.)
Defensively, the Pirates are arguably better in the outfield with Gregory Polanco replacing Travis Snider in right, but poorer on the infield with only Josh Harrison grading as above-average according to FanGraphs, and Pedro Alvarez still learning the first-base position.
But the Pirates are still among the most aggressive teams in terms of unconventional defensive shifts, which can cover up many ills when employed judiciously. It was precisely that kind of hidden value that boosted the Bucs in 2013.
Pirates pitchers also continue to buy into the defensive program, with starters and relievers alike tossing two-seam fastballs that opponents keep slamming into the ground. Not everyone has Morton’s ridiculous sinker, but the approach has nonetheless been effective staff-wide.
Hitting is another story altogether, with on-base ability and power down throughout the lineup, with the exception of Starling Marte in the latter category (slugging percentage up from .453 to .481).
The Pirates have fallen back from their 2014 pace that resulted in the second-best team OPS and OPS+ in the NL, and this shortcoming has cost them many winnable games this season.
On the other hand, if the Pirates can keep limiting the opposition the way they have so far, they have a chance to approach the 94 regular-season wins they compiled in 2013, instead of the 88 they scrapped together last year.