Watch out, Major League Baseball, that is not just any sail on the horizon. That is the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they mean business. After making the playoffs, and subsequently losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series, in their first winning season since 1992 last year, the Bucs are back and ready to make an even deeper run this season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates Back in the Playoffs, Again
The Pirates’ record currently sits at 86-72. At worst, the Pirates are assured a playoff spot, as they clinched their second consecutive playoff berth for the first time in 22 years with a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday. However, they have the potential for so much more. Though the season is well into its twilight, the Pirates could potentially overtake the National League Central-leading Cardinals before the season’s end, as they are just 1.5 games out of fist place and are playing their best baseball of the season at the moment.
Since being swept by the Cardinals to open the month, the Bucs are 15-4 in their last 19 games and face two sub-.500 teams – the Braves and the Cincinnati Reds, for the rest of this month. While they will likely have to settle for a wild card spot, no team should sleep on these Pirates. The boys of the ‘Burgh are poised for a deeper run than they managed last season, and this time they have the experience to back their playoff run up. The question is no longer whether the Pirates are truly a playoff-caliber team. They very clearly are. What we as fans must ask ourselves now is this: what has driven the Pirates to the strong position they now occupy?
It starts with the pitching, which has really come into it’s own in September. The bullpen has a collective earned run average around one thus far in the month of September. Closer Mark Melancon exemplifies this recent success. Though his season ERA is hovering just below two, September has seen him take his game to another level. He owns an 0.86 ERA and 16 strikeouts, compared to just two walks, in 12.2 innings this month. The starters have fared equally as well, and behind them the Pirates have outscored their opponents 81-38 over their last 19 games. Francisco Liriano in particular has enjoyed pitching in September: over his last 39 innings, he has an ERA of just 0.69 and has not allowed an earned run over his last 28 innings. He also leads the team with 170 strikeouts this season.
The hitting has also stepped up this month, led by right fielder Josh Harrison and the reigning NL MVP, center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Harrison leads the team in batting average at .316, is second on the team in runs scored (72), and second in stolen bases (17). McCutchen is second on the team, behind Harrison, with a .313 batting average, leads the team with 86 runs scored, 25 home runs, and 78 runs batted in, and is tied with Harrison for second on the team with 17 steals. Like the rest of the team, both Harrison and McCutchen have stepped up their game over the last month. Harrison is hitting .333 in September with 6 RBI. McCutchen is somehow topping that with a .349 batting average and four home runs this month.
The Buccos have also reaped the benefits of sticking with left fielder Starling Marte. Back in April and early May, many were wondering if the Pirates could rely on their lead-off hitter because of his high strikeout rate. Pittsburgh’s patience paid off; Marte’s strikeouts are down from last season and his walks are up, and he is third on the team with a .291 batting average while leading in steals (28). Like his fellow outfielders, Marte has also been hot in September, putting up a .384 batting average, four homers, and 10 RBI. And it is not just those three driving the Pirates’ current run of success; the team had the sixth-best overall batting average in baseball as of Thursday.
The point is, these aren’t your granddaddy’s Pirates. Fans, get ready to raise the Jolly Roger. These Pirates are built for the playoffs, and are peaking at just the right time. While they may still not be favorites to win it all, they have certainly emerged as one of the most interesting teams to watch going into the playoffs. It remains to be seen how far their current hot streak can take them, but there is no doubt that the Pirates are for real. And that’s a good thing. I can think of few nicer stadiums in which to watch October baseball than PNC Park on the Allegheny River.
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