Are you really surprised? The Pirates are headed for another season on the back burner of the NL Central; another season headed for a wildcard berth, and another season in which the St. Louis Cardinals give Pirates fans extra gray hairs that they (and I) could seriously live without.
Despite playing in the toughest division in baseball, the Pirates would have a multi-game lead over the current leader in four of the five other divisions. Let that just sink in for a moment.
A team cursed by mismanagement and the infamous losing streak not too long ago, now holds a better record than four out of six division leaders.
Unfortunately, for players and fans alike, the Pirates do not have the luxury of changing the hand that they’ve been dealt. Instead, they must find a way to beat the St. Louis Cardinals’ royal flush.
A lot, and I mean a lot, has to go right for the Pirates to win the division. The Bucs have only three more games against the Redbirds, so there isn’t much more time to gain ground head-to-head, and before the Pirates get to play St. Louis again, they 14 games left agains the Cubs, Reds and Brewers, teams the Pirates are 17-26 against so far this season.
There’s also the biggest factor in why it will be difficult for the Pirates to win the division: the Cardinals, in turn, would need to lose. The Cardinals are a mystical wonder of baseball. They are seemingly unable to lose games, even when it seems like they should.
Not very many teams could lose not only their ace in the rotation (Adam Wainwright), but their offensive juggernaut (Matt Holliday) and still be on the cusp of winning 100 games. Take a step back and give the Cardinals credit where credit is due. Most of their success has stemmed from their incredible ability to call upon young players who have produced even though they are inexperienced.
Despite all of that, the Pirates can still catch the Cardinals. For starters, the rotation threatens to be the best in the majors.
Gerrit Cole appears to be regaining his stride and momentum headed into the postseason. Pushing back his next start will help the ace recharge his battery for the final weeks. Cole, when pitching in the months of September and October, has been rock solid. To go along with a 9-2 record with a 2.95 ERA, the former first round pick has an astounding 10.2 K/9.
Francisco Liriano has mustered another solid season and has been fairly consistent each outing. Eclipsing his career high in strikeouts since being with Pittsburgh, Liriano has been the cog in the Pirates’ rotation that has yet to jam. Being relatively healthy, Frankie has worked hard in achieving more command, something he struggled with mightily last year.
A rested A.J. Burnett will get his first start since July 30th and will be entering his final month(s) of his career, which may light a fire under the 38-year-old veteran. His injury seems to have been a blessing in disguise. Not only has the former World Series champion, been able to gain back a breath or two, Pittsburgh found a suitable pitcher that not only filled his spot, but may have also found a place of his own in the rotation.
J.A. Happ has become a major surprise in giving the Pirates an extra arm to rely on and looks to have regained his confidence since joining the Buccos. After last night’s start, Happ should have secured a position in the rotation until he proves otherwise.
Not only has pitching escalated the Pirates’ to a new level this season, the bats have been swinging early and often. What makes this offense so lethal is that Andrew McCutchen does not bear the aching weight of the entire team on his back.
Unlike years past, McCutchen now has a whole support system; Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang, Gregory Polanco, and Aramis Ramirez just to name a few. Not only does this help the 2015 NL MVP candidate, it gives these players confidence headed into their final month of battle.
But, again, even if the Pirates handle their business, one thing remains constant: the Cardinals need to lose. Can they? Sure. Will they? Now that is a different question. Especially considering their play this week against the Cubs, it feels like it’s about time that a team that lost key contributors hits an obstacle or two.
The final factor is the Pirates clubhouse. You notice how the team is a like brotherhood; a brotherhood of Pirates. Men who are willing to scrape, claw, and purge all other teams of their riches, so they can reap the rewards that have escaped their grasp for one too many seasons. These 2015 Battlin’ Buccos will finally travel the three rivers, dock at PNC, and raise the Jolly Rodger with an NL Central crown upon his head, declaring the season an unequivocal success.