The Pirates might be hard-pressed to reach those 94 victories they achieved last season, as the organization took the fanbase — and the city as a whole — on a magnificent ride that ended in the playoffs and still forces a buzz when anyone speaks a word of it.
But as the Pirates went into Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals with a 47-42 record and were jockeying for second place in the National League Central — and less than 2 games back in the Wild Card — it could be said that how they are doing this might just be more impressive than the heights reached last season. That is to say, as the All-Star Break approaches the organization is in the thick of the playoff talk and it seem as if they have gotten positively no breaks this season.
The bullpen has been untidy.
The guys out of the pen have blown 14 saves to date while compared to 15 in all of 2013. To a man not named Tony Watson, it seems the bullpen has underperformed or, at the very least, hasn’t pitched with the confidence and poise presented a season ago.
Jason Grilli lost enough conviction with management — and his teammates — that he was shuttled off to Anaheim in a trade and new closer Mark Melancon has shown cracks at times. In 2013, if the Pirates were able to get a game to the 8th with a lead, it was pretty much over. There isn’t that same sense of sureness this season, yet the club has amassed this many wins.
The rotation is a mess.
Who would ever think that the Pirates would have a winning record — and be in the thick of things — if Vance Worley, Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton each had at least four times as many starts as Francisco Liriano had wins at this point in the season? Probably no one, but it is true. On top of that, after just six starts the Pirates had seen enough from their No. 2 or 3 starter (depending on who you talked to) in Wandy Rodriguez and cut him loose. The stretch of bad fortune has continued with Gerrit Cole, as he is set to go on his second stint on the disabled list. In addition, Jameson Taillon, projected to join the club in June from Class AAA Indianapolis, never even made it here as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery. And, there is a very real possibility — of limited fault of his own — Charlie Morton could have 10 losses at the All-Star Break. When you jumble all of that together, it truly is mind-boggling the Pirates had a .533 winning percentage into Tuesday night’s game.
Pedro hasn’t been Pedro.
To this, we can all agree — Pedro Alvarez has had better days. Coming off a season in which he was an All Star and tied for the National League lead in home runs with 36, Alvarez has underperformed both at the plate and with his glove. While at this point in his career Alvarez is supposed to be a mainstay in the heart of the order, he has been bounced down to the bottom regularly and manager Clint Hurdle has grown uneasy with his defense that he has been pulled in place of a late-game defensive sub on a few occasions. While Alvarez has recently pushed his average to .240, his power numbers are down with 13 home runs and nine doubles. He’s also struck out 83 times in the first 87 games he’s appeared in. Alvarez ranks last among NL third basemen with a .935 fielding percentage, as he’s made 18 errors — seven more than any other regular at the position in the National League.
Hurdle is battling his own health problems.
I’m told by someone within the organization that, “it’s astonishing the skipper can keep showing up every day with that hip. The guy is in excruciating pain.” So much so, I’m told Hurdle spends long stretches on the team charter flights and bus rides standing because it is far too painful to sit. He does the same in the dugout; unable to sit because it is too painful. That same source also told me Hurdle definitely needs hip replacement surgery but has been putting it off so as not to disrupt the continuity of this team and season. That said, I can’t imagine how much pain he’s in every day yet he’s been able to manage this team to solid results.
So while we went on that incredible ride that galloped us through a magical 2013, if you stop and think about it right now, what the Pirates are doing to this point in the 2014 might be even more impressive — especially after you stop to consider all that hasn’t gone their way. And that isn’t even bringing up Neil Walker’s appendix deciding to act up at the most untimely time.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Check out his bio here.