Ten days

One of the themes of this entire season for the Pittsburgh Pirates for me has been trying to determine what makes a season a successful one. With 13 games to go, the 2015 Pirates have 89 wins. They are more or less assured of a wild card spot (their magic number to clinch a playoff berth is 3, I believe), they’ll almost certainly finish with the most wins by any Pirate team in a generation or more, and they’ve still got an outside shot at 100 wins. This is, by a lot of basic standards, a great baseball team.

They’re also a great baseball team with very bleak playoff prospects. They’re four games behind the Cardinals with three to play against them. The Cardinals’ magic number is ten, which leaves the Pirates’ divisional hopes outside of their own hands. They are almost certain to face Jake Arrieta in the Wild Card Game. Arrieta threw eight innings against the Pirates last Wednesday, struck out five, didn’t give up an extra base hit, and allowed two runs through bad defense, more or less. This was about as bad as Arrieta’s been since the early part of the summer. The Pirates lost their second best position player to an awful knee injury in the last game of that Cubs’ series, in a play that was so stupid and devastating that I honestly still don’t feel much like talking about it*.

And so on Saturday afternoon, the Pirates were sitting on a four-game losing streak, no Jung Ho Kang, Clayton Kershaw waiting on the mound, and a Cubs’ lead against the Cardinals that gave them a chance to tie the Pirates in the standings and earn home field in the Wild Card Game. It felt like maybe the Pirates were going to turtle for the season’s final two weeks, since their fate was more or less set.

And so, of course, they go out and beat Kershaw behind a gem from Liriano, they get another really strong start from Cole on Sunday, and now they’re entering what is probably the ten-day stretch that will decide how the NL Central shakes out in 2015. Most likely, the NL Central will shake out exactly how it stands today: the Cardinals will win the division, the Pirates will finish in second, and the Cubs will finish in third. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, so let’s look at what’s ahead.

In the early part of this week, all three clubs play bad teams. The Cubs host the Brewers, the Cardinals host the Reds, and the Pirates are in Colorado. All three of those teams have 63 wins and 84 or 85 losses. The Pirates are on the road, but maybe you could say that they’re better off playing a non-NL Central team, given the arc of this season. After four in Colorado, the schedule makers do the Pirates no favors: they play Thursday afternoon in Denver, and again on Friday afternoon against a Cubs team that does not have to travel. The Cardinals host the Brewers. At this point, it’s ESPN that does the Pirates no favors: the Pirates and Cubs are the Sunday Night Baseball game at 8:08, after which the Pirates then have to leave for Pittsburgh to host the Cardinals for three games. The Cubs have a makeup game against the Royals that Monday, then go to Cincinnati. In the final weekend, the Pirates host the Reds, the Cardinals go to Atlanta, and the Cubs go to Milwaukee.

It’s pretty simple from here, I think: whoever is in first place when the Pirates/Cardinals series ends next week wins the division. In order for that team to be the Pirates, they will have to sweep the Cardinals at PNC Park. They can do this: they’re 5-2 against the Cardinals at PNC this year, 50-25 at home in general, and their two most memorable wins thus far in 2015 came at PNC against the Cardinals. The issue is getting to a point at which a sweep of the Cardinals gets the Pirates into first place. They need to shave at least one game off the lead this week, obviously, which, given the Cardinals’ schedule, might require five or six wins against the Rockies and Cubs.

I’ve written off the Pirates’ division chances before only to have them storm back into contention, but this feels like a tall task to me when coupled with the travel schedule. The Pirates obviously did a lot of things right here: they have the rotation perfectly set so that Gerrit Cole is the only starter to pitch against both the Cubs and Cardinals. That makes his last start scheduled for the last game in the Cardinal series, which leaves him free to start the Wild Card Game.

There have been a number of times in the second half of this season that I’ve wanted to throw my hands up and wail EVERYTHING IS AFWUL THE BEST PIRATE TEAM SINCE I WAS SEVEN IS GOING TO WIN 98 GAMES AND LOSE THE WILD CARD GAME AND NOT EVEN PLAY A PLAYOFF SERIES LIFE IS UNFAIR BASEBALL IS BAD AND STUPID, but this Pirate team always bounces back. It seems incredibly unlikely to me that they’re going to win the division, and it’s impossible to not be nervous about the Wild Card Game, but at this point I think we should probably let them at least play these ten games out before making any sort of conclusions. I’d say that 89-60 has earned that.

Anyway, it’s AJ Burnett and Jon Gray in Denver at 8:40 tonight. I thought Burnett was really impressive in his last start against the Cubs. That more or less solidified his viability as a playoff starter, should the Pirates get to a place where they need several of those. I would not be surprised to see the Pirates be cautious with his pitch count in the thin air of Colorado tonight, given his recent injury problems. He doesn’t have a win in his first eight starts and his ERA is 5.00, but given that he’s pitching for the Rockies, he’s got a relatively strong 3.17 FIP due to his solid 35:15 K:BB and only two homers allowed. He pitched decently against the Pirate at PNC Park last month, but got dinged for seven hits and left before the fifth inning ended. He’s better than his numbers, but he’s still the sort of pitcher the Pirates should obliterate at Coors Field.

*In short: baseball in general is better with Jung Ho Kang on the field, and the Pirates are much better with him in the lineup. They have a lot of infield depth and might be able to replace him, but it’s still a gut-punch to think about having to do so for the playoffs after everything he’s done for the Pirates this year. 

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.