The Pittsburgh Pirates season came to a disappointing end on Wednesday night as Jake Arrieta did what everyone knew he would do but what many Pirates’ fans were afraid to admit. He tossed a four-hit shutout and only looked human for a brief moment or two in the middle of the game. Many Pirate fans were hoping that Gerrit Cole could at least keep the Pirates in the game, but even that would not be the case. A 98-win season still has to be looked at as a huge success, even if the ending was not what we had hoped. Many items of interest stood out in this contest, but here are five of our takeaways from the game.
1) Jake Arrieta is a man on a mission
We all know the kind of stats that Arrieta put up in the second half of this season. Post-All Star break, Arieta held a 0.75 ERA, allowing a mere nine earned runs over 107+ innings of work. He got even more dominant as the season progressed, and he continued that dominance into Wednesday night. Despite his historic second half, coupled with a 0.75 ERA against the Pirates in five starts during the regular season, we still thought he could be beaten. Maybe he will be, but he wasn’t on Wednesday night. He lasted all nine innings and notched 11 strikeouts, tied for his second-highest total of the season. He was getting Pirate batters to swing at high pitches, and the ump wasn’t helping matters (but we’ll get into that shortly). When he did finally show signs of being human in the sixth and seventh innings, the Pirates ended their scoring threats by grounding into two double plays. Arrieta added insult to injury by stealing a base and not allowing the two batters he hit to do any damage on the scoreboard. After last season, it seems like everyone is expecting some sort of Madison Bumgarner-esque performance from someone. If anyone can come close to replicating what Bumgarner did last season, it’s Arrieta.
2) The Pirates were nervous on the big stage
One of the more surprising aspects of the game was how nervous the Pirates looked right out of the gate. The Cubs’ players had more reasons to be nervous than the Pirates. They were in a hostile environment and just about all of their players were making their first appearance in the playoffs. Yes, Arrieta gave them confidence. But some of the Cubs’ players were in defensive spots that they weren’t used to, and the pressure was on them to try to score off one of the best pitchers in the game in Cole.
But the rookies looked like veterans for the Cubs, while Cole and the Pirates looked unable to cope with the big stage. Forget the shutdown of their offense for a moment. Andrew McCutchen laid off on the first hit of the game when it looked like he could have caught the ball had he ran full speed for it. Cole was getting behind in counts early and often. Sean Rodriguez, in there for defensive purposes, had trouble scooping a ball at first (though to be fair, Neil Walker is just as much to blame on that play) and let his emotions get the best of him later in the game. Players were swinging at countless pitches outside the zone, and the offense couldn’t get anything going from the outset. All in all, from a team that’s been on this kind of stage each of the past two seasons, you’d expect them to not make mistakes and to not show a general sense of nervousness as often as they did.
3) These umps get paid to do their jobs, right?
You never like to make excuses, so let me preface this by saying that the Pirates lost because Arrieta dominated them and because Cole didn’t have a good outing. Those are the reasons for the loss. Now that I’ve said that, it has to be pointed out how poor the strike zone was on Wedneday. The home plate umpire was calling anything and everything close to the zone. It was the widest I’ve seen it called in a long time. Take this called strike three on Pedro Alvarez that sums this up:
I hate when people try to justify an expanded strike zone, saying that players should be able to adjust to it once they know how it’s being called. Or when people just accept the fact that it’s okay if a strike zone is bigger or smaller as long as the ump is consistent. In no other major sport is something like this seen. The rules aren’t bent in other sports like they are with the strike zone in baseball. I for one can’t wait for an automated strike zone. It’s long overdue, and it will be here sooner than you think.
4) Winning the division is of utmost importance
For me, the outcome of the game last night just emphasized how important it is for the Pirates to win the NL Central. This is much easier said than done, as it clearly couldn’t be done this year with 98 wins. But every move made this offseason and the way every game is managed next season has to be with one goal in mind: to win the division. Is it going to be difficult? Absolutely. The Cardinals never seem to lose steam, and the Cubs will only get better over the next few years. And while some discount the idea of “windows” in baseball, the Pirates do only have three more years of McCutchen under his current contract, and who knows if they’ll be able to extend Gerrit Cole. The time to win is now, and that’s best done when you position yourself in a series as opposed to a one-game playoff. The Pirates can’t be okay with just a playoff berth next season. Bigger trades have to be made, bigger signings have to be made, and bolder actions have to be taken. The Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates could very well be the three best teams in baseball next season and for years to come as well, but the Pirates have the talent to win the NL Central. Now, it’s just about getting it done.
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5) Lot of decisions moving forward this offseason
As the game progressed on Wednesday, and as defeat seemed more and more inevitable, I couldn’t help but ponder about the future of the Pirates. That’s what the end of any sports’ season does to me as a fan. You think about the future of players, and the where the franchise stands at the moment. For one, no Pirate fan wants to continue to see this talented team compete in the Wild Card game year-in and year-out. Yes, it’s better than not making the postseason, but we want the division. We want at least a guaranteed series. I’m sure many Pirates’ fans thought that this team had as good a shot as any to reach and win the World Series if they could just get to the NLDS.
This franchise as a whole might be in an interesting point in time now. If this team continues to not make it past the NLDS, their legacy won’t be what it could. Regular season success is nothing without at least some postseason success.
I also wonder about the futures of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. Both could be gone before next season, but both could also be back. From what I’ve heard and read, Walker seems to be on his way out, and with Alvarez benched for the start of the WC game, he could very well be gone too. A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez are both gone. Will the Pirates actively pursue J.A. Happ, as many think they should? Will Mark Melancon be traded while his value is high? Will Huntington try to ink Gregory Polanco to a long-term extension before he has a breakout season? There are so many questions that will likely all be answered before the first pitch of the 2016 season.
It was a fantastic season for this Pittsburgh Pirates’ team. 98 wins is absolutely nothing to scoff at. The end of it all was definitely disappointing, but it was tempered by the fact that we all had a feeling that a loss to Arrieta was the most realistic outcome. It will be an interesting offseason of decisions for Huntington and co., and next season will surely be a defining one for this franchise.