Diary of a long-suffering Pirates fan: Games 15 & 16: Splitsville. But, hey, it's better than last year.

Why a fanbase should celebrate its teams split of a four game series
Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages
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As detailed in an earlier post, the Pirates’ road record last year against playoff teams was 9 wins and 25 losses. So, playing the Phillies in Philadelphia this weekend had the look and feel of 2023, especially after the Phillies dispatched the Pirates in the first game of the series.  And when the Phillies took the third game of the series--in a walk-off victory no less--it again had the look and feel of 2023. 

Not only was the Phillies' victory gut-wrenching, but it also knocked the Pirates out of first place.  And it also set a vibe that this road trip—much like the weather in the first two games of the series—would possibly rain on the Pirates early season success parade. What Pirates fan wasn’t thinking that the Pirates might lose 3 out of 4?  That’s how Pirates fans are conditioned to think.  Losses against good teams usually come in bunches for the Pirates. The Phillies already had two in their pocket, and all the momentum from the walk-off victory, so one more victory against the Pirates to close out the series seemed pre-ordained.   

And there were three more things going for the Phillies.  First, they were starting Zach Wheeler against the Pirates.  In his career, Wheeler was 4-0 with a 2.14 e.r.a. against the Pirates. And heading into the game, Wheeler had a pristine 1.89 E.R.A. for the 2024 season.

Secondly, the Pirates were starting Mitch Keller.  In his career against the Phillies, Keller was 0-3 with an E.R.A. north of 5.00.  So, the pitching matchup didn’t seem to favor the Pirates.

And third, it was a getaway day.  You know the day when a team has to get on an airplane immediately following the game that they are playing and fly to the city of their next opponent (in this case New York).  In 2023 the Pirates were 17-23 (.425 win percentage) on getaway games.  In most losing seasons for the Pirates, their record on Getaway games is abysmal.  So 17-23 by Pirates standards was not the worst, but it certainly doesn’t scream, “playoff contender.”  But, just like beating good teams on the road, if the Pirates want to change things around in 2024, they need to do better on getaway games, too.

So, you’ll forgive me if my confidence for the fourth game of the series was not high. 

And for five innings on Sunday, it looked like it would be the Phillies’ day.  Zach Wheeler seemed to be in control, as he usually is against the Pirates.  He had limited the Pirates to one gift run.  And the Phillies were ahead 2 to 1.

But then the sixth inning happened. As a precursor to the sixth inning, it should be noted that, although the Pirates had scored only one run to that point, they had forced Wheeler to throw a lot of pitches—82 pitches to be exact.  That seems to be the Pirates’ superpower this year--An uncanny ability to make starting pitchers throw a lot of pitches.  So, the sixth inning, no matter how it turned out for Wheeler, looked as if it would be his last inning.

The inning, itself, did not start out with a hard hit ball or any evidence that Wheeler was faltering.  It instead started with an error, when Ke’Bryan Hayes’ routine groundball to third scooted under the glove of Phillies’ third baseman, Alec Bohm and into left field.  Rowdy Tellez followed with an 8-pitch walk.  Wheeler was now at 95 pitches.  On pitch #98, Andrew McCutcheon blooped a single into right center field.  It was not a hard-hit ball.  The first reaction was that McCutcheon had just hit a fly out.  That was also the reaction of the Pirates’ baserunners who were able to advance only one base on the hit as they had to hold until it was confirmed that the ball would not be caught.  So that loaded the bases with nobody out.

Now the fans of good teams no doubt approach their team’s loading the bases with nobody out differently than does a Pirates’ fan.  Fans of good teams probably view the bases loaded situation like a kid views Christmas Eve—with anticipation of good things to come.  For them, it’s the anticipation that their team is about to blow the game wide open.

But Pirates fans?  The expectations are more pedestrian. My reaction to the next hitter (in this case, Suwinski) is as follows: “OK.  Whatever you do, don’t pop out or don’t strike out.  Just put the ball in play and get the tying run home.  No need to be a hero here.  Just get it in play.  Even a double-play is OK.  That will at least tie the game.  Unless it’s hit to the pitcher and it’s a pitcher to catcher to first baseman double play.  That won’t be any good.  But hitting it to any of the other infielders will be OK.  That will probably bring in the tying run.  A sacrifice Fly will work, too.  Just get it in play.”

But, glory be, Suwinski exceeds all expectations (for Pirates’ fans anyway) and hits a grand slam.  On pitch number 100 from Zach Wheeler.  Glory Be.  And just like that, the ball game was over….so to speak.

There were still four more innings to go at that point.  And the Pirates added to the lead....with a little bit of excitement, too, I might add.  You may have heard that a certain Pirates DH hit his 300th career homer.  So that got a wee bit of buzz. 

And lost in the excitement of the Suwinski grand slam and McCutheon’s 300th homer, Joey Bart hit another homerun. He is another story for another post.  But watching him play in his limited three-game audition thus far, I’m left to wonder, “Why isn’t this guy playing more?”  No offense to Henry Davis, but Joey Bart is killing it.  And the Pirates are undefeated when Joey Bart starts. Maybe Davis and Bart should be splitting the catching duties a little more evenly. Just saying.

But anyway, the Pirates victory on Sunday took away all of the bad taste that Saturday’s Phillies victory had left. So much so that I don’t even feel a need to discuss Saturday's game here.  Especially the blown save part of it by Aroldis Chapman or the Pirates inability to get a single baserunner against the Phillies bullpen.  No need to talk about that. 

Instead as a Pirates fan, I will celebrate Sunday’s victory and a series split against the Phillies. Yes, I know. Who celebrates series splits? Well, fanbases with low expectations and a 44-year history of their team losing do.  Sunday's game was a victory against a good team on the road on getaway day.  When you’re a Pirates’ fan, you’ll take that.  Baby steps.  And, look at that, Milwaukee lost, so the Pirates are once again tied for first place.