The Pirates have dropped five of their last seven games and have watched their division lead dwindle to just three games. Talk of another “collapse” is getting stronger and louder. Yes, the Pirates are still 23 games over .500 and are still in first place in the Central. But is there reason to worry?
All baseball teams go through rough patches. 162 games is a long season, and no team cruises through the whole schedule without a few losing streaks. What’s disconcerting about the current losing streak is how it is happening. Not one person can say the Pirates should not have won all three games against St. Louis this week. Liriano’s gem aside, the pitching was sub-par. The defense was even worse. Winning teams, especially championship winning teams, don’t lose games that they work so hard to win. That is exactly what the Pirates did. Every time the offense grabbed a lead, the pitchers managed to blow it the following inning. Burnett’s fifth inning implosion cost the Pirates a win in St. Louis. Even in yesterday’s win, Cole managed to blow the two run lead Pedro had just gotten him the previous inning. It seemed like they pitched more timid, trying to get batters to chase bad pitches and subsequently falling behind in the count. This results in far more walks and hits than there should be. Hitters have consistently gotten 2-1 and 3-1 hitters counts on Pirates pitchers over the last week or so. When you have a chance to build on your division lead against your main competition in a pennant race and blow your opportunity like the Pirates did, that does not bode well for postseason success.
Why did this happen? It’s simple: this team cannot win consistently on the road. Inside of PNC Park they look like the World Series contenders they are made out to be, but on the road they are a totally different team. Their 30-29 record away from home is simply not good enough. Championship teams find ways to win on the road because they know they will have to win on the road in the playoffs. Losing five of six on a road trip in mid-August is never a good sign.
So yes, there is reason to worry. I’m not sure this team would lose one more game all season if they played the rest of their games at PNC, but they don’t. The offense was labeled the problem for so long, but they did what they had to on the most recent road trip. No, the bats didn’t produce six or seven runs a game, but they gave the pitching the lead it needed, and the pitching couldn’t hold the lead. Pirates pitchers combine for a stellar 2.69 ERA at home. On the road they post a pedestrian 3.60. They post far less strikeouts, allow more base-on-balls, and allow a much higher opponent slugging percentage. So don’t blame this on the offense. The have produced almost the same amount of RBI on the road (224) as they have at home (225). Pirates batters have hit 68 homeruns on the road in just 59 games, compared to 47 homeruns in 62 home games.
The pitching staff needs to start performing on the road, and fast. If they don’t, this team could find itself in trouble come late September.