This is approximately how the Pirates’ season has gone: a stretch of solid play that makes you hopeful, followed by a stretch of bad play that goes on a few days beyond the point where you think, “If they don’t start playing better here, the season will be over,” which is then immediately buoyed by more good play that coincides with a rival falling on their face, re-starting the cycle again.
This latest incarnation of the cycle involved a seven game losing streak that saw the Pirates drop from a 1 1/2 game lead in the first wild card spot and a 1 1/2 game deficit in the NL Central to a seven game deficit in the Central and fourth place spot in the wild card race, two games behind the tie between the Giants and Braves for the second wild card. That ended with a win over the Braves, and counting that victory, the Pirates are now 7-2 since the losing streak ended. They’re one game behind the Cardinals for the second wild card, and they’re two games behind the Brewers in the NL Central.
At this point, there are only two possible outcomes to the 2014 season: either the Pirates bear down, play strong baseball in September, and make the playoffs (preferably by winning the division), or they don’t (or maybe they do and then they lose the wild card game, which is basically missing the playoffs), in which case we throw up our hands and say, “You can’t go through bad stretches like this team did and expect the season to end well.”
If we’re headed for Option A, then the Pirate are going to have to do things like sweep the Reds. The Reds have a bunch of injury problems, they’re not playing well right now, and the Pirates are playing them at a point where the Brewers and Cardinals are both struggling. A win today at the very least brings the Pirates to within a game and a half of the Giants at the top of the NL Wild Card race, and at the most could put the Pirates in the second wild card and within a game of the Brewers, which would be the closest they’ve been since the trade deadline.
In other words, there aren’t necessarily “must-win games” for the Pirates quite yet, since both the wild card and NL Central races are close enough with enough time left that anything could conceivably happen. Instead, there are opportunities. The Pirates have done a really poor job of converting their opportunities this year; whenever they get close to the Central or the wild card, they drop a bunch of games against a division opponent or just lose a ton of baseball games in general. They need to do better in these sorts of games down the stretch, or I think the season is going to have a disappointing end.
Anyway, Francisco Liriano and Johnny Cueto face off for approximately the millionth time since seeing each other in the last year’s Wild Card game. Liriano’s last start against the Cardinals was good, but on the whole he’s been maddeningly inconsistent this year. Both Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez held the Reds hitless for long streaks this weekend, though, and Liriano is more talented than either of them, so I have hope he can make a second strong start in a row here. Johnny Cueto is Johny Cueto. I can’t tell you anything about him that you don’t already know. First pitch is at 1:35.