One week ago the Pittsburgh Pirates were not only in the midst of their worst slump of the still-young 2016 season, but of the past 4 years. Losers of 20 out of their last 26, they also fell 5 games under .500 and began to start looking like those teams who underachieved from 1993-2012. And if you know that bit of history, then you’re fully aware that it’s not a good one.
What caused this slump? Injuries and pitching. The Pirates have had several players get hurt in the past month. Injuries to C Francisco Cervelli (.257), starting P Gerrit Cole (6-5, 2.77 ERA) and RF Gregory Polanco were the most critical as they’re still out and there really hasn’t been a timetable for their return. In their place, the Pirates have had to acquire a catcher (Erik Kratz) and call up 2 of their stud rookie prospects (Jameson Tallon & Chad Kuhl) to hopefully hold it down while Cervelli and Cole recover and get their team back in contention. With Super 4th OF Matt Joyce (.294, 8 HR, 26 RBI) the Pirates know they’re good at that position as Polanco mends.
After losing 3 of 4 to the SF Giants, the Pirates faced another tall task as they welcomed the hot LA Dodgers to PNC Park. They were hoping for a miracle and nearly got one as they won 3 of 4 from the Dodgers this past weekend.
How??? It’s simple science. They key to the Pirates success from 2013-15 has been pitching which was also the key to them winning their first 3 games vs. the Dodgers. How did they lose the 4th game? Lack of pitching.
In the rubber match vs. the Dodgers, the Pirates actually stormed to a 4-0 lead which is usually enough for a team to win, but unfortunately starter Francisco Liriano did all he could to blow their huge lead as he gave up 5 runs end route to the 5-4 victory. Liriano is now 4-8 with an eye-popping 5.33 ERA while Dodgers starter Matt Kazmir survived giving up the 4 runs to win his 6th of the season.
Kratz did what he could for his team as his 2-run single extended the Pirates lead to 4-0 in the bottom of the first after OF Starling Marte and RF Sean Rodriguez each delivered RBI singles. The Dodgers would score a run in the 3rd before exploding for 4 more runs in the 5th thanks to a 2-out single by OF AJ Ellis and a 2-run bases-loaded single by OF Yasiel Puig, which chased Liriano.
In Sunday’s game, rookie Chad Kuhl pitched five effective innings and David Freese hit a three-run double that sent the Pittsburgh Pirates past Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3 on Sunday night.
Kuhl (1-0) allowed three runs and four hits in five innings after getting called up from Triple-A Indianapolis before the game. The 23-year-old righty struck out five and walked four after going 6-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 minor league starts.
Kershaw (11-2) took his second loss of the season exactly two months after he was beaten by Miami on April 26. He gave up four runs and nine hits in six innings, striking out four and walking two.
In Saturday’s game, McCutchen homered twice, Jeff Locke took a perfect game into the sixth inning, and the Pirates beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-1 Saturday night.
It was McCutchen 11th career multi-homer game – second this year. The nine-year veteran’s batting average had dropped to .239 – 55 points below his career average – after going 9 for 49 (.184) with 16 strikeouts in his previous 13 games. While Locke (7-5) retired his first 15 batters before consecutive doubles by Scott Van Slyke and A.J. Ellis to start the sixth inning broke up his perfect game and shutout bids. Locke allowed one run and five hits in seven innings, striking out three and walking none.
And in Friday’s game, Matt Joyce homered and doubled among his three hits and Pittsburgh beat Los Angeles 8-6, ending the Dodgers’ six-game winning streak and giving manager Clint Hurdle his 1,000th career victory.
Hurdle is in his sixth season with the Pirates and also had an eight-year managerial stint with the Colorado Rockies from 2002-09.
Joyce drove in two runs while filling in for right fielder Gregory Polanco, who sat out with lower leg discomfort. His RBI single in a two-run fifth inning helped push the Pirates’ lead to 7-4 and his eighth homer, a solo shot in the seventh off Chris Hatcher, made it 8-6. Jung Ho Kang also homered as the Pirates won for just the third time in 16 games. Sean Rodriguez had three RBIs and Starling Marte added two hits.
Pirates rookie starter Jameson Taillon had a second consecutive poor start, allowing four runs and eight hits in four-plus innings with two strikeouts and one walk. Neftali Feliz (2-0), the fourth of six Pirates pitchers, retired all five batters he faced, and Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for the save.
As a result, the Pirates are now 37-40, 12.5 games back from the NL-leading Chicago Cubs and if the season ended today, the Pirates would not be in the postseason as they now trail both NL Wild Card spots by 4.5 games. With 85 games left and the All-Star Break looming, the Pirates truly have lots of work to do.
Speaking of that All-Star Break, we know there will be at least one Pirate to represent them in this year’s Mid-Summer Classic in San Diego, but who will it be? It’s hard to imagine, but 5-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen (.243, 12 HR, 32 RBI) has a shot at missing his first All-Star Game since 2010 and remember, he was a starter the last 2 years. He is currently in 9th place in fan voting. The only way that McCutchen will get in at this point is if he gets very hot this week and gets his batting average above .250 or if NL (and NY Mets) Manager Terry Collins adds him on reputation.
It is a strong possibility that fellow Pirates OFs Starling Marte (.326, 6 HR, 29 RBI) and Polanco (.296, 10 HR, 44 RBI) could get the nod as OF reserves, but the definite pick is 2-time All-Star closer Mark Melancon who is 3rd in saves with 22. Time will tell as voting ends June 30.
Meanwhile the Pirates need to figure out what to do with struggling starters like Liriano, who had been the Pirates most consistent starter the past 3 seasons. It’s truly hard to believe that the Pirates best starter is Locke who also is 5-1 at home. But his 5.12 ERA is still much to be desired. Jonathan Niese (6-5) has the team’s best ERA at 4.93, which isn’t that encouraging. In addition to Kuhl (1-0) fellow rookie Jameson Tallion (1-1, 4.50) knows that one good start will improve his ERA numbers.
As for the bullpen, at one time it was one of MLB’s best but with the exception of Melancon and Feliz, it’s now one of MLB’s worst. Former All-Star set-up man Tony Watson has a 3.48 ERA and set-up men Jared Hughes (4.37), Rob Scahill (4.41) Arquimedes Caminero (4.21) have struggled to hold leads for the Pirates. Hopefully former starter Juan Nicasio (5-6, 5.48 ERA) can help the struggling bullpen.
The Pirates will now take the road and play the Seattle Mariners (38-38) in a 2-game series with Niese as the series-opening starter. The series starts Tuesday night.
The Pirates know that they only way they can get back above .500 and a shot at their 4th consecutive NL Wild Card Berth, is by winning and they’re hoping taking 3 of 4 from the Dodgers will be a start of good things to come.
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