For much of this summer, I've tried to choose my language carefully when the Pirates lose a few games in a row or X games out of X. Specifically, I've tried to avoid the phrase, "the Pirates have to win," because the baseball season is long and the Pirates' various spells of brilliant play have protected them from having to win any singular game. The benefit of winning nine in a row or having a 9-2 homestand or taking three out of four in almost every four-game series that you play is that you can absorb a certain number of stretches of 1-5 or 2-7 baseball.
This last stretch has expended most of that cushion. On one level, it matters that three of the Pirates seven losses in this last nine-game span have come in extra innings, because that's an indication that they're not playing as badly as their recent record indicates. On another level, it doesn't matter at all; they're losing baseball games and they've come to a point at which they need to stop losing baseball games. It doesn't really matter that if they'd gone 5-4 (with one of those wins being The Marte Game) in this stretch that they'd have a five game lead on the Cardinals and a 5 1/2 game lead on the Reds and that they'd be on virtual West Coast victory lap towards winning their 82nd game and burying the Cardinals for good at PNC Park over Labor Day weekend. It doesn't matter that they've left the undead body of the Diamondbacks season still gasping for life until someone else finishes them off in the next couple of weeks.
I've been saying for a while now that once a team gets into a pennant race, the only thing that truly matters is the next game. Ten days ago, the Pirates were coming off of an incredible high after a 9-2 homestand that left them with a four-game lead in the NL Central. That incredible high had no bearing on the next nine games, because the Pirates have only won two of them. Now, that 9-2 homestand matters exactly as much as the 2-7 stretch that's followed it and these last 20 games don't matter any more than the 103 other games that the Pirates have played this year. Remember this? It's still as true today as it was 2 1/2 years ago.
The catch is this: life is much easier when you're in first place. The Pirates were in first place on August 8th. They've lost seven of their last nine games, while the Cardinals have won five of nine and the Reds have won seven of ten since then. The Pirates are still in first place. It's true that the schedule would technically allow for the Pirates to have a bad week on the West Coast and fall out of first place, because they have six games left against both the Cardinals and the Reds. I think that this team is much better suited to play from ahead if they're going to win the division, and winning the division is the only outcome to this season that won't leave me at least a little bit disappointed.
Turning things around is much easier than it looks from the low point that the Pirates are at today. Francisco Liriano starts tonight. AJ Burnett starts tomorrow. Gerrit Cole will probably start on Wednesday (I say probably because I think there's a chance that someone else could start Wednesday to give Cole and Locke both an extra day of rest, though that plan may have been torpedoed by Kris Johnson's excessively long relief outing yesterday). They are better than Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy, respectively. I think that the Pirates probably need to win two of these three games. It's as good a place to start a turn-around as any,