As the unofficial first half of the Pirates season came to a close Sunday, with the club losing to the Mets but pushing to a 56-37 record, it’s high time for optimism in our fair City of Steel.
It should be.
Forget quantifiable data. There hasn’t been a buzz around the Pirates like this in about two decades.
People are stopping what they are doing each night at first pitch to watch.
Bars are full of patrons who go there to view the game, not escape the misery of the season.
Crowds are magnetically gravitating toward the North Shore, as was evidence of the 115,699 who gathered at PNC Park over this past home series against the Mets.
Is it safe to — after 92 games — go ahead and confirm them as one of the five National League playoff teams?
Here are three reasons why and, conversely, three why it might be wise to hold off:
Why they are a playoff team:
+ Pitching, pitching and more pitching: Headed into the final game of the series with the Mets, the Pirates had five pivotal pitchers with an ERA of 2.15 or lower. Eighth-inning guy Mark Melancon was at 0.81, reliever Justin Wilson at 1.89, closer Jason Grilli at 1.99 and starters Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke at 2.00 and 2.15, respectively. But the real meat to this staff has been in the depth, as the highest ERA for the 10 pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings is Wandy Rodriguez’s 3.59 — and he hasn’t pitched since June 5.
+ Russell Martin: You would be hard-pressed to find a time in recent Pirates history where a free agent position player came in and significantly upgraded any position the way Martin has behind the plate — and with his bat. Into Sunday’s game, Martin had thrown out 22 would-be base stealers and made just one error. On top of that, his .236 average with 8 home runs and 16 doubles could spike a bit, but is, for now, good enough. Remember, this is the same franchise that just two seasons ago used all these guys to catch (or at least try to): Ryan Doumit, Jason Jaramillo, Michael McKenry, Dusty Brown, Eric Fryer, Chris Snyder, Matt Pagnozzi and Wyatt Toregas.
+ Clint Hurdle: There is a deep want, desire and aspiration — at least in the players with whom I have spoken — to play for, and win for, Hurdle. Generally, I’m not sold on clubhouse camaraderie. That is to say, give me 25 guys who can’t stand each other but can really play, and I’ll take my chances against 25 guys who are pretty good, but get along swimmingly.
In this case, however, it is different. Hurdle has taken a noticeable approach wherein he doesn’t force players to put in an exorbitant amount of extra work or go through painstaking, grind-it-out workouts. Rather, he takes the “my door is always open” approach, where he is at the ready if they ask for additional help. To this point, it has yielded results, with players striking a balance (with Hurdle’s help) of understanding how much it takes to succeed, but also stopping short of overexertion, especially spent working on the mundane.
Why it isn’t wise to count the Pirates in the playoffs yet:
+ This offense: It is certainly fair to say it’s mind-boggling how the Pirates have, with this offense, arrived at such a record. The club is 10th of 15 National League teams in average (.243), 11th in OPS (.698) and had driven in just 337 runs through play Saturday night, 13th in the NL. The Pirates’ 355 runs scored were better than only the Nationals and Marlins in the National League. In short, how long can the Pirates keep banking on pitching performing at such an elite level? Doesn’t there come a time where the offense needs to jolt in the second-half because of an anticipated regression (and fatigue) with the arms.
+ The past two seasons. Heck, the past 20 seasons: It is convenient to say, and has been a buzzphrase around here, that “this team is different.” Sure, it is. Different than last season, different than the one before when Hurdle managed the Pirates for the first time and, certainly, different than the ones going back 20 years when the Pirates last had a winning season. However, there will be a stigma attached, a 2-ton gorilla on the back of this franchise until the 27th out is recorded in that 82nd victory. That’s just the way it is. The cynics have earned the right to be cynical.
As it stands, the club needs 26 more wins to cross that threshold and it appears to be an easy lock to get there. When the Pirates — and again, seems like a “when” this year, not an “if” — reach that 82nd win, it will be interesting to see how they react.
Will they celebrate?
Will they treat it like just another win?
Will they use it as more motivation?
Who knows. And, to me at least, pushing forward from that 82nd win, which seems highly-likely at this point, will be something to pay strict attention to.
+ Clint Hurdle: For as much of a superior motivator that Hurdle is, the barest of facts shine through: In his first 10 seasons of managing Major League Baseball clubs, he had one winning season; the 2007 Rockies went 90-73 and won the NL. In this, his 11th season managing — and third with the Pirates — it would appear as if he has drifted toward becoming a tad bit more aggressive. Hurdle has used closer Jason Grilli in some non-tied game situations, his teams have run with aggression on the basepaths and there was that memorable suicide squeeze in late-May carried out by Jordy Mercer against the Tigers.
All that said, Hurdle’s propensity to bunt too much and, at times, have a quick hook for starting pitchers has fairly been questioned. As August stretches into September, it isn’t hyperbole to say Hurdle will be managing some of the biggest games this franchise has seen in a generation and, by extension, some of the most tenuous situations he has been faced with as a manager.
It will be intriguing to see how he fares.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.