Towards the end of last summer, whenever I’d watch Pirate games with my non-Pirate fan friends here in North Carolina, they would make fun of me. “Why are you so nervous?” they’d ask. “Aren’t the Pirates going to make the playoffs pretty much no matter what at this point?” I was particularly neurotic in the week between the Pirates’ 81st win and their 82nd win, but the reality is that even at that point, the Pirates were 81-61 and eight games up on the Nationals for the last wild card spot. The drama wasn’t whether the Pirates would make the playoffs, it was whether they’d win the division or not, whether they’d host the wild card or not. Obviously there was some stress over that one-game playoff, but for almost the entire second half of the season, some sort of playoffs were basically a foregone conclusion for the Pirates.
Looking back on that now, last year was kind of like pennant race training wheels for both the Pirates and us Pirate fans. There were important games and things to play for right down to the season’s last weekend, but the stakes weren’t nearly as high as they could’ve been because there was almost no second half drama over any of the NL’s five playoff spots. That was last year, though. This year is shaping up to be much, much different.
As a Pirate fan, you are certainly aware that the Pirates are currently 3 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central, which is the closest they’ve been in the division since the Easter Weekend Meltdowns in Milwaukee. What you may not realize is that despite their recent slump, the Brewers still have the National League’s best record and thanks to their three losses in St. Louis this week, the Pirates have the National League’s eighth best record. What that means is this: the Pirates are currently right in the middle of the National League with seven teams in front of them and seven teams behind them, and they’re less than four games out of a playoff spot three days before the All-Star Break. If you want to get even crazier, it means that no team in the NL is more than two games away from missing the playoffs, as that’s the distance between the best team (the Brewers) and the first non-wild card team (the Cardinals).
For comparison, at the break last year the Cardinals held the NL’s best record at 57-36 and the Phillies and Dodgers were in the middle at .500 (the Dodgers were 47-47, the Phillies were 48-48). The NL West was no good last year, so the Dodgers weren’t out of the playoff race, but the Phillies were 10 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. The team in the second wild card position at the break, the Reds, had a five game lead on their closest competitor, the Nationals. The Cardinals were 10 games away from missing the playoffs entirely. Basically, unless you were a neurotic Pirate fan or an overly confident Nationals’ fan, you looked at the NL standings at the All-Star Break last year and said, “There might not be any playoff race at all here except for the NL West and NL Central positioning.”
This sort of mess in the standings is what I was talking about before last night’s game: in some regards it’s hugely frustrating to know that the Pirates are so close to the playoffs right now with so many losses to the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds, and on the other hand, they’re so close and the NL is so tightly wound right now that all that really matters is what happens going forwards. Remember: the Pirates went into the last series of 2013 tied in the standings with an 8-8 record against the Reds and it felt like the last three games of the year, plus the looming wild card game were going to be a nerve-wracking, hair-pulling coin flip. The Pirates outscored the Reds 22-8 and won all four games. Once you get yourself into position, all that matters is what happens next.