If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, a real run in which they are keeping pace with the Reds and the Cardinals, look back at this game. Look back at Saturday’s 11-2 win over the New York Mets and see the where it all started to come together. The hitters set season highs in hits and runs, and the pitchers set a season high in strikeouts.
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, it will be because Francisco Liriano is at least a shade of the dominant pitcher he once was. Liriano generated 18 swings-and-misses in his Pirates debut, his most since last July, on the way to striking out nine Mets hitters. The left-hander started off sitting 93 miles per hour on his fastball and tuned his off-speed stuff for eight whiffs with the slider and seven whiffs with the changeup. Control issues showed up in the form of a four-pitch walk and five-pitch walk, but neither runner scored.
Liriano exited in the sixth inning, partly because of the large Pirates lead, but he had completed the task well. His final line: 5.1 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K on 90 pitches. He did not give up many hard-hit balls and threw 63% strikes for the highest percentage in his last eight starts. The Mets are in the lower-half of offensive teams in the National League, but Liriano looked sharp to start his 2013 season.
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, it will be because some of the young hitters have reached a level close to their potential. Jose Tabata, Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte are among the pre-prime players the roster is filled with, and they helped supply the offense Saturday.
The day belonged to Mercer. He ripped a high fastball for a home run in the 5th, then followed it up with a no-doubter off the bottom of the second deck in the 8th. Here’s hoping he’s still with the team when they return to Pittsburgh. Tabata had a season-best day as well, smacking a home run to left-center and a double off the wall on the way to a four-hit afternoon. If he can continue to hit lefties (his career numbers are a bit better vs. RHP), we may have found Travis Snider’s platoon partner. Marte racked up a pair of singles to remain the NL leader in base hits.
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, it will be because they get run production from seemingly unexpected places. The seventh and eighth hitters, Michael McKenry and Clint Barmes, combined to rack up four hits and drive in five runs at the bottom of the order. Three of those RBI came with two outs to extend the hurt on Mets starter Jonathon Niese.
The Bucs ended up with a season-high 16 hits and 11 runs on the afternoon, a vision of what is possible when the offense comes together. The offensive outburst was surprising given the Pirates’ struggles against left-handed starters this season (.200 average, .586 OPS as a team entering Saturday).
Bullpen Strong Again
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, it will be because the young relievers lock down the late innings to set up shop for the more experienced Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon. Rookie Bryan Morris did not allow an out and struck out three Mets hitters in the 6th and 7th, and fellow rookie Justin Wilson retired the side 1-2-3 in the 8th with two strikeouts. Tony Watson had a hiccup in the home run he allowed to Andrew Brown, but struck out two himself.
It was all a part of a season-high 16 strikeouts by Pirates pitching. That number also ties the second-most strikeouts by a Pittsburgh pitching staff in a nine-inning game over the last century.
(A brief aside: the Pirates’ performance was the 10th time this season a team has struck out 15+ hitters in a nine-inning game. Between 1925 and 1953, only nine total teams accomplished that feat. Imagine that. MLB teams have done in six weeks what it used to take more than 28 years to do. This is, indeed, the strikeout era. Thanks to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.)
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, you will see the team chemistry come together like it did Saturday. Brandon Inge kept Mercer loose by slapping him in the face at a mound meeting. Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy, a smart analytical player, told a SABR conference that Inge’s knack for keeping the young players loose provides a real benefit to the team. Morris (apparently) stood up for teammate Jose Contreras by hitting Jordany Valdespin, who pimped his solo home run Friday night with a bat flip. The reliever was rewarded with high-fives from Pirates teammates.
Does Inge really provide 12 wins just by keeping the dugout comfortable? Of course not. Should Morris really be plunking guys that celebrate Major League home runs? Probably not. But those moments are what the players care about and where they mesh. Naturally it is easier to dole out fist-pounds and play carefree when you are ahead by nine runs, but I’m not going to completely rule out the idea that this Pirates team could have some good chemistry that leads to positive results.
Where To Next?
There are 126 games to play, four and a half months to go and a lot more this Pirates team has to prove before we will consider them real contenders instead of a squad that is peaking early once again without staying power.
Right now, though, the Bucs are 20-16 against a tougher-than-average schedule and just a half-game behind the second Wild Card spot. The pieces are starting to come into place. Liriano is here, Neil Walker will be back soon, Marte is hitting like a batting champ, the complementary players are providing pop…
If the Pirates make a run for the playoffs, it sure looks like it would be an exciting run to watch.