Pittsburgh Pirates matching up well with contenders in stretch run


How a team plays at the end of the month of August can tell you a lot about their mental outlook going into the final month of the regular season.

In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, it is no different.

Despite their continuous struggles going head-to-head against teams in their own division, the Bucs find themselves in a good spot, sitting 3.5 games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals and owning the first wild card spot. In recent years, Pirates fans have come to realize the positives and negatives that come out of heading into the one game playoff at the end of the season, capturing the first wild card spot and hosting the game in 2013 and 2014.

The Bucs had a magical season in 2013, winning the Wild Card game against Cincinnati and eventually losing in the NLDS against the Cardinals. Last season, they saw the less than exciting part of the one game playoff, losing to Madison Bumgarner the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. Another Wild Card game isn’t exactly the main goal for this team, in fact, I think that their recent play should warrant a little bit more respect when it comes to having a chance to battle for the National League Central Division crown and making a deep run into October.

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It is crystal clear that the National League Central is the best division in baseball. If you don’t believe me, look at the records of the top three teams in the division. The Cardinals (77-45), Pirates (73-48), and the Cubs (70-51) own the best records in the National League, and rank amongst the top five, record wise, in all of baseball. However, when the Pirates lose a game, it seems like fans enjoy losing their minds. It is okay for fans to highlight aspects of this team that make them uneasy. There have been plenty of games in which they shot themselves in the foot, however, we must also realize that this team is the THIRD best team in baseball. The competitiveness of the NL Central and the Pirates lack of success against their own division cause fans to sometimes be blind to this fact, but it is important to look at the big picture.

In the month of August, the Pirates have played seven games against divisional opponents, compiling a record of 3-4 against Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis. The rest of the month, the Pirates have been red hot against opponents that they could possibly face in the postseason. In the other 12 games that the Pirates have played this month, they have won 10 of 12, including sweeps of the National League West and National League East divisional leaders.

To say that their August schedule has been tough would be a huge understatement. Out of their 19 games this month, 17 of them have come against opponents who technically still have an opportunity at making the postseason. Yes, even Arizona.

What the Pirates have done this month has been more than special. Aside from being able to take care of business on the road as of late, they have also been able to play inspiring baseball in front of sellout crowds at PNC Park, night in and night out. Now, you may be asking yourself, “What has been the secret to the Pirates success?”

Honestly, I’m not quite sure that I have a legitimate answer. It has not seemed as if the difference has solely been on the shoulders of one particular person. It has been a group effort. The starting rotation began to falter a bit after the All-Star break, losing A.J Burnett to injury and developing questions within their core, but as of late they have been able to overcome those questions.

Despite recent struggles from Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke, two members of the rotation have been more than solid. Charlie Morton in particular has been lights out in his last two starts, pitching into the seventh inning in each start and giving up only two earned runs. Morton, a ground ball specialist, was also able to tally up some punchouts, compiling at least eight in his last two starts.

To say that their August schedule has been tough would be a huge understatement. Out of their 19 games this month, 17 of them have come against opponents who technically still have an opportunity at making the postseason. Yes, even Arizona.

Another huge contributor for the starting staff in the month of August has been the newest member of the Pirates rotation. Now, I will be the first to tell you when I’m wrong, and so far, J.A. Happ has proven a whole lot of people wrong. Following a less than stellar, 4.1 inning debut against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 4, Happ is coming off of two quality outings against the New York Mets and the Arizona Diamondbacks. In fact, in his last two starts, Happ has only given up one earned run in 11.1 innings. Not too shabby for a guy that I initially thought would not be capable of filling in for A.J Burnett. Cole had a great outing last night, going seven innings while giving up no earned runs on three hits and striking out eight. It was a huge bounce back outing for the Pirates ace, who is vital to the success of this questionable rotation.

As the first half of the Pirates season was highlighted by the stellar pitching rotation and struggles of the offense, the tables seemed to have turned in the second half, especially this month. While Jung ho Kang, who hit two home runs in yesterday’s victory over San Francisco, has established himself as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League, Andrew McCutchen has continued to put up MVP like numbers. However, the man who has made the biggest difference as of late isn’t named Jung Ho Kang, Andrew McCutchen, or even Francisco Cervelli. It’s Gregory Polanco.

At one point this season, trading for another right-fielder was thought to be a brilliant idea. The Pirates young, 23-year old outfielder was struggling and no one seemed sure about Polanco’s future as the starting right-fielder. Like Happ, Polanco has found a way to shut the critics up. In his last 30 games, Polanco has been a force at the top of the Pirates lineup, hitting .305 with four home runs and 15 RBI. Most of that success has come in the month of August with Polanco hitting .325 with three home runs and eight RBI.

The most impressive aspect of Polanco’s game has not been his batting average and has definitely not been his baserunning. His ability to have better at-bats has been a huge difference in my eyes. However, one at-bat that I will never forget was his 12 pitch, fifth inning at-bat against Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer on July 24. Following a pinch hit walk by Jaff Decker, Polanco worked the count, battled, fouled off two full count pitches, and eventually hit a two-run home run to tie the game in the middle innings. It was one of the best at-bats I had seen from any Pirate this season and he simply hasn’t stopped contributing to the offensive output. His .290 batting average when being ahead in the count proves that having good at-bats translates to him being an overall better ball player. The Pirates have a legitimate shot at catching the Cardinals in the division, but having No. 25 at the top of the lineup and on top of his game is crucial.

Following the series with the Cardinals earlier this month, even I thought the Pirates should just prep for a Wild Card matchup with the Cubs at either PNC Park or Wrigley Field. However, their play during a stretch in which they went up against top National League teams made me think a bit differently. This team is special. They have been able to come up with big wins and they consistently put themselves in a position to win baseball games. It is crucial that the rotation gets into gear during the final month of the regular season and getting Josh Harrison back is a huge boost to an already solid lineup and bench. There is no question that winning the National League Central is going to be a difficult task, but this is a team that looks up to the challenge. It is time to take notice baseball world. The Pittsburgh Pirates are not going away that easily.

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