On June 19th, Jason Grilli (predictably) blew a save against the Reds, but the Pirates managed to come back and score a run in the 12th inning to scrape out a 4-3 win and salvage a game from the Reds. That brought the Bucs’ record to 35-37, fourth in the NL Central and 8 1/2 behind the Brewers. I remember thinking at the time that the Pirates were on the verge of collapsing. They’d lost two of three to the Reds, and immediately before that, they had played some ugly baseball in Miami despite sneaking out two wins in three games against the Marlins. The whole foundation felt wobbly with the various injuries at that point and the terrible work by the bullpen, Grilli in particular, made it seem like the bottom was just about to fall out.
Still, I knew that the schedule was about to open up with 16 games against the Cubs, Rays, Mets, Diamondbacks, and Marlins, and I figured at that point that it would take 11 wins in those 16 games (that is, a series win in all five series) to get the Pirates to a point where they were really back in contention, both in the wild card race and in the NL Central. It honestly felt like a pipe dream to me, and it felt even more like that after the Cubs blasted Charlie Morton around Wrigley Field to open the 16-game stretch with a 6-3 win over the Pirates. It was one of those situations where my mouth was saying, “They need 11 wins here” and my brain was saying, “Yeah, sure, like that’s gonna happen.”
Since that loss to the Cubs, the Pirates are 12-3. They put the finishing touches on their romp through the cellar with an easy 6-2 win over the Phillies today. Despite their best efforts, the Pirates hadn’t finished off a sweep at any point in this 2014 season before today, and when Pedro Alvarez made another throwing error that gave the Phillies a 1-0 lead in the first inning, I thought we were headed down that road again today. AJ Burnett struck out Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte to open the game and I thought for a moment that we were going to see Burnett dominate the Pirates in a revenge start that we all should’ve seen coming. Things turned around quickly: Andrew McCutchen beat out an infield single, then moved to third on a bloop Neil Walker hit-and-run single. Russell Martin worked a long at-bat against Burnett and doubled both runners home. The Pirates added a third run in the third when Josh Harrison tripled into the right-center gap and scored on a Neil Walker sac fly.
For most of the afternoon, it seemed like three runs was all Jeff Locke would need. He faced the minimum between the second and sixth innings with some help from the defense behind him (double plays erased a walk to AJ Burnett in the third and a Cody Asche single in the fifth). He was impressive enough that Clint Hurdle let him pitch the eighth inning even after he allowed a home run to Marlon Byrd in the seventh inning that closed the gap to 3-2. In all, he only needed 100 pitches to get through his eight innings of work and only faced more than three batters in the first and seventh innings, scattering three hits, walking one, and only allowing the Byrd homer as an earned run. To my eye, both his changeup and his two-seamer had a disgusting amount of arm-side run on them that made his fastball almost look like a left-handed version of Charlie Morton’s sinker. Clearly, the Phillies had no clue what to do with him at any point this afternoon.
In the bottom of the eighth, Burnett came out and the Pirates piled some runs on Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman and the breathing space was nice. Mark Melancon probably could’ve used the work today since he only pitched twice total in the six games against the Phillies and Diamondbacks, but I’m sure he’s going to be needed in the next seven days and so I won’t complain.
The Pirates got the 11 wins I said they needed, and they threw an extra one on for good measure today. They’re now 47-41, 4 1/2 games behind the Brewers, alone in second place in the NL Central, and alone in third place in the wild card race. The huge gap between them and Milwaukee is disappearing, and the huge glut of National League teams between them and a wild card is narrowing. They took care of business against this long run of awful teams. Now, there are seven games against the Reds and Cardinals standing between them and the All-Star Break. Playing well in these 16 games was necessary, but the real test starts tomorrow.