From the moment the Cardinals bounced the Pirates out of the division race — really, from the moment they took a 6-0 lead in the third inning of that Sept. 30 game — I was thinking and saying, “This is actually a good thing.”
My reasoning: Now the Bucs would have a full week to focus on and gear up for the Wild Card Game and Jake Arrieta. Over-thinking anything is another danger, but at least they won’t have the challenge on having to hit the reset button after a last-day elimination, as last season. And we all know how “settling” for Wild Card status turned out that time.
Even by staying alive with a win in the night portion of that Sept. 30 doubleheader to move within two with three to go, the Bucs weren’t going to catch St. Louis, which would have had a far different weekend in Atlanta had the games mattered. It would’ve been the set-up for another last-day disappointment.
No, thank you.
But in all sincerity, this first step could be the hardest of the entire postseason. So consider how stoked and confident the Bucs will be if they do get past Arrieta.
Can they? They aren’t going to beat him, because the likely Cy Young Award winner has been remarkably consistent. But they could out-pitch him. It might have to be a 1-0 or 2-1 game. Gerrit Cole has that in him.
I’m looking forward to a Blackout, 40,000-strong. The Cubs have the Bleacher Creatures in their Wrigley Field. Pittsburgh can show them a whole park-full of Yinzer Zealots. Let’s see how they deal with it.
My season-long fret over the Pirates’ Spring Training declaration of “Central Division title or bust” has been … what if it’s bust? How do you make the mental adjustment to compete in a Wild Card scenario if it again comes to that?
We’re probably a week from finding out.
Even before that head-scratcher of a loss on Monday, the Bucs were looking at a stacked deck of Cards: Having to win out just to tie for the NL Central lead, since the Redbirds don’t figure to lose a game in their season-ending series with hapless Atlanta.
So even if a doubleheader sweep today leaves them two behind St. Louis — how are they going to make up those two games with the Cardinals playing the Braves?
So the best thing about winning two today would be avoiding having to watch the Cardinals celebrate in PNC Park. (Weird scenario: The Cardinals win the day game, and take the field at night in their champagne-soaked uniforms? No thank you.)
So here come the Cubs and Jake Arrieta.
The biggest help in making that mindset switch would come from Arrieta himself. The Bucs have seen a lot of possibly the Cy Young Award frontrunner and would be psyched to prove they can take him. The first five meetings with him have been tight.
The Pirates even won one of the five and were competitive in the other four.
#6 figures to be tight. To win, the Pirates wil have to do it 1-0, 2-1 or something like that.
Gerrit Cole would be just the man to do it.
Roberto Clemente was in right field.
Ron Santo was at third base.
We were in Vietnam, 24,000-strong.
Heck, I was in college.
1972. The last year the Pirates and Cubs were both winners, both fighting for the same thing — the championship of the old National League East. The Bucs prevailed, easy, their 96-49 record beating out the Cubs by 11 games. Bill Virdon managed those Pirates.
Now they are fighting for the Wild Card, which in 1972 was only Denny McLain. Enjoy it.
Wrigley Field certainly is. I’m not saying these are the best fans in baseball, but I will say this is the place baseball fans know how to have the best time.
I happened to be in the upper stands on the third base side yesterday when Javier Baez’s dive play into first base on a bunt prompted a “safe” challenge from the Pirates. As replays flashed on the left field video board, Cubs and Bucs fans animatedly — but garrulously — shouted each other down. “Safe!” “Out!” Everyone had wide smile — even after umpires overruled the original call, a big help to the the Pirates in a two-run game.
Shame that the Giants had to lose on the Left Coast late Friday night, clinching a playoff spot for the Cubs while they were sleeping (not! I don’t think anybody in Chicago is asleep at midnight; but you know what I mean). That kinda ruined a Wrigleyville party.
It’ll be like 40,000 showing up at church today, and being told, “Hey, the wedding was last week.”
You’re going to be hearing a lot about Jake Arrieta in the next couple of weeks.
He’ll face the Pirates on Sunday, in the finale of the weekend series in Wrigley Field. He also looms in the Bucs’ Wild Card way to the rest of the postseason.
So we need to set the record straight about his remarkable season, which reached the 20-win stage last night.
Noting Arrieta’s 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break, Cubs manager Joe Maddon called his pitcher’s work “Gibson-esque.” Maddon of course was recalling Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA season in 1968.
Ah, but it’s so much better than that.
Gibson was at the lead of a pitchers’ posse that provoked MLB to giver hitters a fairer shot by lowering the mound, a whopping 50% from a height of 15 inches to the still in-use 10 inches.
Think about it … not only is Arrieta putting up numbers not seen since the ‘60s, but he’s doing so with what was meant as a disadvantage for pitchers. …
That lowering of the mound also dramatically altered what scouts look for in pitchers. Height became a major asset. Makes sense: If pitchers are throwing from lower mounds, we’ll get higher pitchers.
This might amaze you (mainly because no one before has really looked at it), but do you know how many pitchers 6-foot-6 or taller were among the 324 used by the 20 Major League teams in 1968? Six. Yes – 6, and the Bucs’ 6-foot-6 lefty Bob Veale was one of them.
Pitchers 6-foot-6 or taller in action during this season?
More teams (32), way more total pitchers (876!). Still, the percentage of tall pitchers has tripled, from 2% to 6%.
And, no, 6-foot-4 Jake Arrieta is not one of them.
When GM Neal Huntington responded within hours of A.J. Burnett’s injury by acquiring J.A. Happ from Seattle, Pirates fans were disillusioned.
“That the best they could do?” was the overall sentiment.
Following Happ’s Pirates debut, they became downright hostile. The Cubs spanked the lefty for nine hits and four runs in 4 1/3 innings on Aug. 4, as he looked positively helpless.
Flash forward and, of course, Happ tonight can further cement his standing as one of the best Trade Deadline pick-ups ever. If not for David Price and his 8-1 record with the Blue Jays, Happ would even lead the conversation about this summer’s best acquisitions.
In seven starts since that first one, not only does Happ have a 1.30 ERA while going 5-1, but the only loss was a 2-1 squeaker to the Cubs.
That makes him another great Jim Benedict-Huntington find, and Ray Searage makeover. However, Clint Hurdle goes out of his way to stress that Happ didn’t just remember how to pitch when he donned Black & Gold.
“We continue to lose sight of how he was pitching in the first half,” Hurdle says, citing Happ’s first 11 starts for the Mariners, of which he lost only one while posting a 3.31 ERA.
From that point on until his trade, Happ went 1-5 with a 6.65 ERA.
“Sometimes a change of scenery can give a guy a shot in the arm,” Hurdle says. “He was coming from a team that was being challenged [translation: losing a lot] to a team in a pennant race. You don’t want to be a weak link, and that gets you to reacquire your focus. He knows he’s being counted on. He has been, and he’s showed up well.”
In trying to continue to put on a show tonight, Happ gets a sidebar split: He must deal with pitchers’ torture chamber, Coors Field, but gets to face a Rockies club an MLB-worst 9-28 against lefty starters.
Here is an advisory Pirates fans could only see in their dreams for many years, from MLB.com’s Cory Schwartz:
“Based on this weekend’s results, the only team that can clinch anything outright tomorrow is Pittsburgh, who can clinch a playoff spot.”
Raise an Iron City to that (the Jolly Roger, later) …
Clicking at the right time? All season, the Bucs have won only two road series after dropping the first game. The last two: Sept. 7-9 in Cincinnati, and this weekend’s set in El Lay. …
The Bucs took matters into their own hands in the competition for the best home record in MLB by becoming the first visitor in three months to win consecutive games in Dodger Stadium. That dropped the Dodgers’ home record to 50-24, tied with the Cardinals for the best. The Pirates are currently next at 50-25. …
Trying to describe Jung Ho Kang’s daring baserunning style, Clint Hurdle often said, “Jung Ho thinks he’s invisible.”
Sure enough, I saw Kang right in the middle of the Bucs’ “costume ball” on their way from Los Angeles to Denver. The theme was Superheroes, with everyone from clubhouse maven Scott Bonnett to Hurdle dressed as a crime-fighting character.
And there was Jung Ho … dressed as Invisible Man. ..
You do know why the Bucs decided to hold Halloween now, don’t you? World Series Game 4: October 31. …
Clint Hurdle is always saying that “today’s game is the biggest of the season.” It’s his way of maintaining that one-game-at-a-time focus.
But today’s game IS the Pirates’ biggest of the season.
They’re reeling, in danger of matching their longest losing streak of the season at the worst possible time. A fifth straight loss would wipe out the last of their five-game lead over the Cubs — all in a matter of five days.
Francisco Liriano needs to pitch up to his ace status. He’s facing Clayton Kershaw in Dodger Stadium. He could be facing Cy Young on the moon. Doesn’t matter. He has to give the Bucs a chance to win this game, for two huge reasons.
One, to stop the skid and all the bad vibes in the wake of Jung Ho Kang’s devastating injury.
Two, to give the Pirates a good chance of taking this series. Liriano takes care of this one, Gerrit Cole figures to take care of Sunday’s game against Mike Bolsinger.
The Cubs called out the Pirates earlier this week, and are in the process of doing the same to the Cardinals this weekend. Time to put your foot down, as Hurdle likes to say.
By the way, for those disappointed with how infrequently I’ve had posts here, given the other time-consuming demands of canvassing the Bucs … from here on out, I’m gonna throw up something at least once a day, usually more. There’s only 15 games left. Time to step up. Something else Hurdle is always saying.
In some ways, the ongoing series in Cincinnati is the Pirates’ most important of the season. Why? Because the Cubs are playing the Cardinals concurrently, meaning every Buccos win means one of two things:
Either they distance themselves from the Cubs for the important, home-field-netting No. 1 Wild Card spot.
Or they get closer to the Cardinals and the even more important division title.
But in Monday’s opener at Great American Ball Park, the Pirates dropped the ball — or booted it, threw it away, whatever view you want to take of the four errors that gave the Reds a 3-1 victory and Anthony DeSclafani his first win in over a month.
In other words, Clint Hurdle may not have picked the best time to give Travis Snider his first start, and Sean Rodriguez his first start of the season at shortstop.
Hurdle has two managerial staples: Following an often long-ago formulated agenda regardless of current circumstances, and “We only have to worry about what we’re doing, not what anyone else is doing.”
Maybe this was a time he should have made an exception, and manage to the circumstances.
Maybe it wasn’t a good time to rest Aramis Ramirez and Starling Marte, after both had homered in Sunday night’s win in St. Louis. Yeah, so did Rodriguez — but that didn’t make him a better shortstop.
Yeah, Hurdle had to deal with the quick turnaround between games — 13 hours from last pitch in St. Louis to first pitch in Cincinnati. But a generally held belief is that travel fatigue usually sets in the day-after, not immediately, so Marte and Ramirez may have been fresher yesterday than will be tonight.
Let’s assume for a minute that the Pirates will NOT head off the Cardinals for the NL Central title — I know it’s a stretch, but bear with me.
That would mean an inevitable Wild Card game against the Cubs.
How critical does that scenario make the seven remaining regular-season games between the teams? In other words, what is the value of the No. 1 seed and the home-field advantage that comes with it?
Don’t quickly dismiss that with, “Duh! Of course hosting that game is huge.”
But would it be decisive? This currently hypothetical issue is rife with pros and cons.
The Bucs are having a season-long problem with winning in Central cities — 7-18 at this moment; but Jake Arrieta, Joe Maddon’s likely choice for the WC start, has won both starts in PNC Park this season with an 0.64 ERA.
The Pirates might prefer getting Jon Lester, but that would happen only if the game is in Wrigley Field, where the lefty has made 17 of his first 25 starts.
Gerrit Cole, who would get the ball, has been a sharper road pitcher in his young career (2.87 ERA v 3.26) and is 4-1 in five starts in Wrigley, where he has yet to allow a homer in 30 innings — while fanning 40 and walking five.
The Cubs would have to be taking a lot of momentum into a Wrigley Wild Card game, since they’ve been chasing the Bucs all season … Blackout versus Bleacher Creatures.
Anyway, it’s far from decided. By the way, the schedule still shows only six remaining games between the teams; the seventh will be the makeup of the Aug. 3 rainout at PNC Park. The makeup date hasn’t yet been announced, but it will be during the Cubs’ Sept. 15-17 visit, either on Sept. 14, a scheduled off day for both teams (they’re waiting approval by the MLB Players Association) or as part of a day-night doubleheader on the 15th.
It’s not exactly painting-by-the-numbers, but the Pirates are perfectly sticking to a time-honored formula for becoming a champion:
.500 + .667 = X
Translation: Go .500 on the road, win two-out-of-three at home, get to play untold number of more games in October.
Entering tonight’s opener of a four-game series in Miami, the Bucs are .517 [30-28] on the road — an impressive recovery from an 8-13 start. And they have played .688 [44-20] ball in their PNC Park fortress.
Of course, we still don’t know the value of “X.” Another Wild Card game? Or jump right into the best-of-five National League Division Series as Central champs? …
Actually, Clint Hurdle does have a problem. He says having too many good players — as he now does with the returns of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer — is a blessing, not a problem. He means that from that standpoint of having many choices, none of which would be wrong.
However, the problem is: How do you keep everyone sharp? This is a game that feeds on reps, the key to timing. You can ration playing time, but not rhythm and flow. It will be a challenge. …
I’ll say it again: Trades of players out of cities that embraced them continue to be a boon to a newspaper industry leaking red from advertising revenue. Chase Utley made his own contribution, taking out appreciative full-page ads in both Philadelphia players following his deal to the Dodgers. …
Francisco Liriano in his last five starts: 4.67 ERA. His and the Bucs’ records in those starts: 3-0 and 5-0, respectively. File this under “things even out.”
Last season, Liriano had the third worst run support among NL starters at 3.16 runs per game. This season, his 5.26 runs per game is the fifth best. …
In 2014, the Bucs muscled a total of 62 homers out of PNC Park. They’ve already left the park 59 times this season, with 17 home games remaining. …