In the immediate aftermath of this loss, my first reaction was to compare it with Game 4 of last year’s NLDS. That game, too, was a pitcher’s duel that the Pirates lost to the Cardinals though maybe the Pirates had more chances to win today. Sort of similar to today’s game, that game didn’t quite spell an end to the 2013 Pirates’ season, but it certainly marked a missed opportunity after which things would certainly be much more difficult for the Bucs.
That’s pretty much how I feel about these last four games for the Pirates. The Pirates were poised to make a move in the division after four wins in a row at the end of last week, and now they’ve given all four games back. They’ve lost these four games by a total of five runs, and you can argue pretty convincingly that the Pirates could’ve won any of these four games. If only the bullpen knew how to pitch to Chris Heisey, if only Clint Hurdle had Gerrit Cole on a shorter leash, if only the Pirates could’ve cashed in in the eighth inning last night, if only they could’ve found one more hit today. None of those things happened, though. The Pirates wasted a good Liriano start on Sunday and a good Volquez start today and a bunch of bit hits on Monday and Tuesday. In the span of four days, the NL Central race turned from a tense three-team race to the finish into a September victory lap for the Cardinals. That’s frustrating: the Cardinals have been an uninspired baseball team all year, the Pirates have mostly played even with them, and because the Cardinals have won five one-run or walkoff games against the Pirates since July 7th (the Pirates have zero wins like this against the Cardinals in that span, as if you really needed me to tell you that), the Cardinals are going to win the division and the Pirates might miss the playoffs. That’s the difference right there: if the Pirates win three of those five games, they’re in first place. If they win all five, they’re the team with the five-game lead on the Cardinals. This is all maddening without it being the same team that eliminated the Pirates from the playoffs last year. When you add that in, well, I don’t think I want to talk about it anymore.
At this point, the Pirates are in a three-team race with the Braves and Brewers for the National League’s last wild card spot and the right to face Madison Bumgarner on the road in the NL Wild Card Game. The Brewers are going to lose again to the Cubs tonight (that’s eight in a row), and when that happens they’ll have a half-game lead on the Braves and a two-game lead on the Pirates. The Pirates have three games left against each team, so neither deficit is insurmountable. Whether you thought the Pirates were capable of more than the second wild card this year is now an irrelevant topic until the off-season: the second wild card is the only thing left that the Pirates can win, and so that’s what we’ll have to hope for.