There is no major American sport that treats its first division runner-up worse than baseball does. In the NFL, the team with the best record that fails to win a division plays the worst division winner in the Wild Card Round. The division-winner gets home-field advantage, but often has a worse record than the wild card team. In the NHL, divisional playoffs are held. It takes two best-of-seven series wins to get through the division playoffs whether you’re the division winner or a wild card. The NBA has eliminated their old seeding, in which second place teams with better records than division winners were seeded higher. In Major League Baseball, you play one game against a team that finished the season with a worse record than you did, and if you lose, you go home.
You know this already, because if you’re reading this you’re likely a Pirate fan. You know that the Pirates finished last year with baseball’s second best record and they ended the Wild Card Game last year with the exact same record as the Cubs, but they stayed home. You know they’ve been out-scored 12-0 at home in the last two Wild Card Games as they’ve faced two straight buzzsaw aces; one at the beginning of a historic playoff run in 2014, and one at the end of a historic regular season one in 2015.
That knowledge, though, makes it easy to forget that it’s every bit as easy to be the spoiler in the Wild Card Game as it is to be the spoiled. It’s August 16th, and the Pirates are 60-56. That’s not really all that great of a record: they were 70-46 through 116 games in 2013, 62-54 in 2014, and 69-47 last year. They were already in a Wild Card position in those three seasons through 116 games. They are not right now, as they sit a game behind both the Marlins and Cardinals for the second wild card.
This has been a frustrating year to watch the Pirates.They left a gaping hole in their starting rotation over the winter, and then spent most of April, May, and June trying to figure out how to patch that hole while waiting on the Jameson Taillon-led cavalry to be ready to help. They lost Ryan Vogelsong to a line drive off of his face just when it was becoming apparent that the Juan Nicasio-in-the-rotation experiment was failing, and then they lost Gerrit Cole to a triceps injury on top of that. Cole’s seemed mostly fine and turned in two of his best starts as a Pirate in May (against the Cubs) and August (against the Brewers) this year, but his strikeout rate is down and that seems to be catching up to him lately. The bullpen has been uneven all year — save the now-traded Mark Melancon — and when a Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz both hiccuped in June to coincide with the Vogelsong and Cole injuries, the Pirates lost 14 of 20.
The offense is supposed to be this team’s strong suit and while Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have emerged as two of the best outfielders in the NL, Andrew McCutchen is having a down year, both John Jaso and Jung Ho Kang have fallen off of the map after hot starts, and Francisco Cervelli had no power this year before a power-sapping hamate injury. Basically the entire offensive endeavor has been kept afloat by Matt Joyce, David Freese, and Sean Rodriguez.
And yet there’s this: the Pirates are 26-17 since bottoming out at 34-39 with a loss to the Giants on June 23, which is a half-game behind the Nats for the best clip in the National League over that span. They’ve done that while dealing with both Cole’s injury and his recent shakiness, with the Mark Melancon trade, and with the offensive dry spell that plagued the team from the All-Star Break until very recently.
That leaves me with two sort of unavoidable conclusions: 1.) the Pirates might have their best baseball in front of them in 2016, and 2.) Wow, they’d probably win a whole lot of games in a very short period of time if they find a way to get to that level, since they’re at about a .600 clip over the last 43 games without playing their best baseball.
When you spend as much time fretting over bad off-seasons and internal budgets and minor leaguers stuck in AAA when they could be helping in Pittsburgh as we Pirate fans (rightfully) have this year, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that one of the main goals of a playoff team is to end the season playing your best baseball. Two years in a row, the Pirates have hosted a Wild Card Game and lost to a team that managed to do just that. There is no rule that says that they can’t be on the other side of that coin this year.
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