The Pittsburgh Pirates dropped two of three in Cincinnati over the weekend in what must have been considered the most important series the Pirates have played in since 1992, their last playoff season and last with a winning record.
While the series dropped the Pirates to 4.5 games back of first place in the NL Central, it certainly didn’t knock them out of running for the division title. Nor would a sweep have knocked them out of the running.
As St. Louis and Tampa Bay proved last fall, there’s a lot of ball to be played between August and September.
It’s been quite awhile since the Pirates last played meaningful baseball into August. The Bucs currently sit at 61-46, 15 games over .500 and 2.5 games ahead of division rival St. Louis in the National League’s second Wild Card spot.
They’ve won six of their last ten, Andrew McCutchen continues to lead the NL in batting average and offensive WAR and staff ace A.J. Burnett has just been named NL Player of the Week after compiling a 2-0 record and 1.02 ERA in 17 and two-thirds innings.
Considering where the Pirates are, where they seem to be going and where history suggests they should be, dropping two of three to the league’s best club is hardly cause for great concern.
Starting pitcher A.J. Burnett may be the biggest reason Bucs fans need not panic.
The reigning NL Player of the Week has been Pittsburgh’s finest pitcher all season. Were it not for the 12-run debacle against St. Louis in April, he might be the runaway favorite for the NL Cy Young Award.
Burnett is now 14-3 on the season. That ties him for the Major League lead in wins by a pitcher and leads the Pirates’ staff by four victories, but his stats have been bettered lately only by his ability to pitch his finest games in the biggest situations—such as needing to avoid a sweep and 6.5 game deficit to the Reds.
The Pirates have now won 16 of the last 17 games Burnett has started.
Pittsburgh had one of the game’s best starting rotations early in the season, but recent struggles by Erik Bedard and the previously-dominant James McDonald have magnified the importance of Burnett’s current performances.
Burnett’s 7-2 record following a team loss has earned him status as the team’s stopper, in addition everything else he has brought this season.
The offseason move to Pittsburgh has more than rejuvenated the veteran Burnett. He’s now just four wins shy of a career-high 18 set in 2008 with the Blue Jays, and his current .824 winning percentage is third in the Majors and the best of his career.
At the cost of two low-level prospects and with a lion’s share of his salary still covered by the deep-pocketed Yankees, Burnett has quickly proven to be the finest transaction of GM Neal Huntington’s tenure.
Which is to say nothing of Andrew McCutchen’s continued MVP-level play.
Even though his numbers have cooled in the last few weeks, McCutchen’s batting average has dropped to .368—still the best in the bigs. He also ranks in the top two of the NL in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging.
McCutchen also leads the Pirates in virtually every offensive category.
In addition to their own assets, recent history tells the Pirates that the regular season isn’t over until it’s over—and that goes for teams on both sides of the playoff bubble.
Last season, St. Louis won 23 of its final 32 games to leapfrog the Atlanta Braves and into the postseason on the final game of the year. Tampa Bay followed suit, erasing a nine-game deficit in the season’s final month to claim the AL Wild Card berth on the same night St. Louis climbed into baseball’s second season.
For Pittsburgh, a 4.5 game deficit in early August is nothing when a 9.0-game lead was surrendered in less than 30 days just a season ago. Similarly, if the Pirates continue to win ball games through the month of August, they’ll want to avoid the kind of stretches suffered by the Braves and Red Sox last year, who finished 2011 by surrendering leads of 10.5 and 9.0 games, respectively.
On either side of the playoff bubble, Pittsburgh’s focus remains precisely the same—stay the course.