COMMENTARY | When Pittsburgh Pirates fans went to bed Thursday night in preparation for the team's final series against the St. Louis Cardinals, their dreams were filled with sugarplum visions of that elusive 82nd win, greedily picturing the state of the division if Pittsburgh took the series from the Cardinals.
Instead, after being swept in demoralizing fashion, the team will start the week facing the cold reality of a 1 1/2-game deficit in the NL Central and a tie for second place with the Cincinnati Reds.
No matter how deep you look, there was nothing redeeming in this series:
- The Pirates were outscored 26-10. And that even underscores how badly the Pirates lost, all but one of those runs coming in the eighth or ninth innings of games that were long decided.
- On Friday night, the Cardinals nearly matched a franchise and major league record when nine consecutive men got hits in the bottom of the seventh.
- No starting pitcher made it beyond the fifth inning. Jeff Locke went five full, A.J. Burnett was lifted after three, and Charlie Morton was taken out with two outs in the bottom of the second after injuring his left foot.
- Even when the starters were in the game, they didn't do much. The ERA for the Pirates' starters, a staff that has led most of baseball this season, was 11.17.
- The hitters failed to contribute as well, striking out 24 times, leaving 20 men on base, and grounding into four double plays.
It was a nearly lifeless team that took the field against the Cardinals, and with no games left on the schedule between the two teams, the Pirates won't have the chance to directly strike back. But is there anything we can learn anything from the weekend? Is this The Collapse Part III?
While it's easy to panic and start preparing hibernation nests until next spring, just remember that this same Pirates club started the year 1-5, scoring eight runs with a .348 OPS through the first week of the season. And the four-game losing streak they're on is the third they've had this year.
Meanwhile, the Reds have had a five-game losing streak. And even the now-first-place Cardinals lost seven in a row at the end of July.
The point is that every ballclub goes through cold spells, the good ones simply minimizing their length.
No, the larger fear is that the Pirates are simply playing to their true talent level. Most computer projection systems looked at the Pirates' hot start and saw a team that should be closer to .500, expecting them to play that way the rest of the year. Sure enough, since July 1, the Pirates are 30-31, playing the exact kind of baseball that was predicted for them.
It makes sense. For as good as the rotation has been, it's still led by Francisco Liriano pitching like he was 26 instead of the one with a 5.23 ERA between 2011-2012, and a 36-year-old in A.J. Burnett having the best year of his career. They're supported by Jeff Locke, an unheralded prospect with a 5.89 ERA in the second half, and Charlie Morton, a ground-ball pitcher whose success largely depends on whether those grounders end up in the mitts of his defenders or not.
And on the offensive side of the ball, beyond Andrew McCutchen's MVP-worthy performance, Pedro Alvarez's bat bounces between scorching hot and ice cold, with nothing in between. Garrett Jones is arguably having his worst year since joining the Pirates in 2009, and, before the acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, there was a gaping hole of doom in right field, a .674 OPS coming from the position.
That's not to say one should discount the Pirates in the playoffs, though. This is a stronger team than they've had in nearly a generation, and that's why they still hold an eight-game lead over the Washington Nationals for the final wild-card spot. Baseball Prospectus, even after this recent down-spell, gives the team a 99.7% probability of reaching postseason soil.
While having to play in the wild-card playoff is not ideal, anything can happen when reaching the postseason. Just as the team is cold right now, it could just as easily win nine in a row like it did at the end of June, a division title, or even a World Series appearance at the end of it.
So step away from the cliff, Pirates fans, this is not a horror movie with The Collapse rising from the grave and holding an axe to the Pirates' season. It's just a rough patch, albeit coming at the worst time of the year.
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