One week ago, the Pirates were 64-55. They were 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers and in the first wild card position, 1 1/2 up on the Cardinals and 2 up on the Giants. They were a comfortable four games up on the Braves and Reds, and five up on the Marlins. All of this was despite being with Andrew McCutchen for over a week and with the knowledge that both McCutchen and Gerrit Cole would likely be back in seven days. In other words, things looked OK for the Pirates exactly seven days ago.
The Pirates haven’t won a game since then. Even worse than the Pirates’ seven losses, the Cardinals went 6-1, the Braves went 6-1, the Brewers went 5-1, Marlins went 4-2, and the Giants went 3-2. Hell, the Reds went 1-6 over the last seven days and made up a game on the Pirates. One week ago, it wasn’t a crazy pipe dream to think that the Pirates could be the home team in an NLDS series against the Nationals. Tonight, the Pirates enter their last game against the Braves a full two games behind Atlanta, and Atlanta isn’t even in the second wild card position. They’re now 4 1/2 behind the NL’s first wild card team, the Cardinals, and 2 1/2 behind the second wild card team, the Giants. They are closer in the standings to the Marlins than they are to the playoffs.
That’s what Gerrit Cole returns to tonight. He returns to a smoking crater of a baseball team that suddenly has to go from seven straight losses to being just about the best team in the National League over the season’s final five weeks just to make the playoffs at all. The division is out of reach. The first wild card is probably out of reach. That’s the difference a week can make in a loaded pennant race.
Anyway, Cole is basically the Pirates’ last hope to have even one consistently halfway competent starting pitcher in their rotation down the stretch. His rehab starts with Indianapolis were, in order, impressive, terrifying, solid, and solid. He only allowed six hits and one walk over 13 innings in his last two starts, but he also only had six strikeouts. His velocity dipped from time to time, according to him simply because he needed to build back up to his normal stamina. Hopefully that’s the case, because if the Pirates are going to make a run down the stretch here, they’re almost certainly going to need Cole to look like he did last September to do it.
Alex Wood starts for the Braves tonight. He’s been good in the second half, if a bit inconsistent. Two starts ago he struck out 12 Nationals in 7 1/3 innings, but he needed 124 pitches to do so. That was his second straight start over 114 pitches and his third straight over 104. His last start was not terribly effective (six innings, four hits, two runs, but three walks and only one strikeout). He threw 100+ pitches in three straight starts one other time this year, made a bad start, and then went to the bullpen for six weeks to keep his innings under control. I’m mentioning this because it seems to me that the Pirates’ best chance against a young, talented lefty is just that he’s entirely out of gas at this point in the season. That’s where the season is right now.
First pitch is at 7:05.