It is amazing how different baseball can feel from Monday to Monday. Two Mondays ago, the Pirates were 71-65, two games out of first place and two games out of the second wild card (the Brewers are Cardinals were tied) and facing a week against the Cubs and Cardinals. The Pirates had a strange week from there, because they lost all three games to the Cardinals and more or less eliminated themselves from NL Central contention, then won all three against the Cubs and took a lead in the second wild card. That meant that last Monday, the Pirates were 74-68 and 4 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, but a half-game up on the Brewers and Braves. Going 3-3 that week likely cost them the division, but it gained them 2 1/2 games on the Brewers. Since then, the Pirates have continued slicing through the Phillies and Cubs with five wins in seven games. That makes them a season-high nine games above .500 at 79-70. The Braves have more or less eliminated themselves from playoff contention with a bad week (they’re a full four games behind the Pirates for the NL’s last playoff spot now), but the Brewers are still hanging around at 1 1/2 back. By this time next Monday, the Pirates will have played three against the Red Sox while the Brewers and Cardinals play, then three against the Brewers. By this time in two weeks, the season will be over.
There is an awfully good chance that by next Monday, everything will be more or less decided. The Pirates play an uneven Red Sox team this week and if they can take two of three, they’ll gain at least a game on either the Brewers or the Cardinals. The Pirates and Brewers will then play over the weekend. Even if things stand exactly the same between the Pirates and Brewers at this time next week, that will have been a good week for the Pirates, since a 1 1/2 game lead with seven games left against (more or less) eliminated teams is a pretty strong position. If they can make up even one more game against the Brewers this week, there’s a good chance the season’s final week will feel only slightly more difficult than a victory lap. The reverse holds true, too; the Pirates have been known to disappear for a week here and there and it could certainly happen against the Sox and Brewers. If the Pirates find the script flipped on them this week, they’ll be hard-pressed to make up many games against a Brewer team that ends with the Reds and the Cubs. This coming week is a huge week, in other words.
Let’s take a couple minutes and loop back to yesterday’s game, which slightly diffused the hugeness of this week for the Pirates. Saturday night’s game was frustrating in that the Pirates’ offense was bottled up for just long enough that Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez, and Justin Wilson made too big of a mess for them to clean up. After the Cubs took their 3-0 lead, I expected that the Pirates would explode at the plate at any moment and re-take the game, but it the offensive explosion didn’t come until much too late. Yesterday’s game felt from early on like it was going to head down the same road. Edinson Volquez’s first few innings looked a lot like the Edinson Volquez we all feared the Pirates had signed over the winter. He walked two hitters in the second, then threw the ball away on a pointless play to let an extra run score. In the third, with the score already 2-0, Javier Baez reached first on an infield hit, stole second, and moved to third on a bad throw. He scored on a sac fly.
The potential of two straight losses to the Cubs and a half-game lead on the Brewers. This Pirate team is an odd team. On their best days, it feels legitimately possible that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They can absolutely club the baseball, they can play good enough defense to prop up a questionable starting rotation, and while the bullpen is paper-thin, there are enough good arms in it to make it at least create the illusion of confidence once the game gets into the seventh or eighth innings (depending on how you feel about John Holdzkom, I guess) with a two or three-run lead. On their worst days, you wonder if they have even one good starting pitcher, and you wonder if there’s any lead that they can’t find a way to blow. The result is that they’re probably going to be almost exactly as good as their final record (BP currently projects them for 86 wins, but their schedule might give them a win or two more than that) and that somehow if the Pirates win 86 games and win the second wild card it’s going to be both relieving that they made the playoffs with all of their issues and injuries and incredibly infuriating that they weren’t better.
Anyway, after a game and a half of the incredibly frustrating Pirate team, the Bucs finally clicked in the fifth inning yesterday. It is worth typing out the whole sequence, just because of how wonderful and weird it was. Jordy Mercer singled, Gregory Polanco drew a walk, and Edinson Volquez bunted them both over (with two strikes, no less!). Josh Harrison doubled both runners home, then Travis Snider doubled Harrison home and moved to third on an Andrew McCutchen single. Neil Walker drove a ball deep towards the Notch and Chris Coghlan ran it down, caught the ball, and then let it fall out of his glove. Snider scored, McCutchen moved to third, Walker ended up on second. Russell Martin was walked intentionally to load the bases. That was finally enough for Jacob Turner, who was relieved by Eric Jokisch. That meant Gaby Sanchez came up to hit. He hit a swinging bunt that was brought a run home and was scored an infield hit, though it probably should’ve resulted in him being out at first. After Mercer struck out (that’s only two outs now), Gregory Polanco hit the inning’s second bases loaded infield single to bring home the inning’s sixth run. Volquez finally grounded out on a weird play to end the inning. 12 hitters, seven hits, six runs, two bases-loaded-infield-singles.
Extremely frustrating, then incredibly fun. That was this weekend, that’s been this whole Pirate season. There are two weeks left to make it into something that extends beyond the season’s last day.