The Pirates are 7-13 in their last 20 games. Andrew McCutchen hit worse in those 20 games than Gaby Sanchez. The pitching staff is cracking at the seams, the bullpen is a smoking crater that the team refuses to acknowledge or fix, and the Pirates are out playoff position for the first time since June 27th, sitting a full game behind the Cardinals for the NL’s final wild card spot.
This is a crossroads. If the Pirates are a good baseball team, they really can’t play much worse than they’ve been playing and they keep doing this for much longer. Despite their struggles over the last three weeks, the Pirates don’t really need to be an exceptionally good baseball team from here on out to take a wild card spot; they just need to stop being a bad one. With 38 games left, the Pirates play the Brewers (57-66, 17-21 since the break) nine times, the Cubs seven (47-76, 14-24), the Astros six (39-86, 6-33), and the Mets (57-68, 11-28) four. That’s 27 games against teams that are medicore, bad, or downright awful. If the Pirates just go 15-12 in those games, that puts us at 82 wins without even considering the six games against the Reds, three against the Cardinals, and three against the Braves. If the Pirates win five of those 12 games, that’s 87 wins, which will at the very least keep them in the thick of the race for the last wild card spot right down until the last week and it could even be enough to sneak into the wild card play-in game if the Dodgers and Cardinals don’t start playing better baseball.
If we just look at the season from the viewpoint of the last three weeks, 20-18 seems like an incredibly tall task for this group of players. If we look at what the Pirates have accomplished over the course of 123 games, it seems much less improbable. That’s the crossroads we’re at: is this a good team in a slump, or a mediocre team that played way over its heads in June and July? Are the problems we’ve seen from James McDonald and AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez of late mechanical things that can be fixed down the stretch or are they fatigue issues that won’t go away as the season goes on? Can Andrew McCutchen pull himself back together and get hot to finish the season, or is he out of gas again? Seriously, what the hell is going on with the bullpen?
None of these questions have immediate answers. The team’s poor play of late has certainly sewed enough doubt in my mind that it’s hard to see this group of players getting back to the pre-All Star break hot streak that they were on. Even with lots of Cubs and Astros dotting the landscape ahead, it’s really tough to envision this team reeling off an 8-2 streak to put some of these fears to bed. They don’t really need that, though, to stay afloat. They just need to stop being awful and move back towards something resembling average. At the very least, that’ll be a good start.