A little more than two weeks ago, the Pirates returned home with a 18-20 record despite a plus-9 run differential overall.
In the Pirates’ first 38 games, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano made 23 starts combined. Pittsburgh went 10-13 in those starts.
Fast-forward to today, as the Pirates come off a sweep of San Francisco in the middle leg of a 10-game road trip, and the team is now 29-24. The Pirates are 11-4 in their last 15 games, taking possession of second place in the National League Central at six games behind St. Louis.
In 2015, five games above .500 stands as the Pirates’ high-water mark so far.
After Minnesota took its two games at PNC Park, this hot streak started with a three-game demolition of the New York Mets in which the Pirates outscored them 24-4 over three games. The Marlins were the next course, as the Pirates took advantage of the floundering franchise to pick up three more.
After a split in San Diego and sweep of the defending World Series champions, the Pirates look formidable.
Since May 19 Cole, Burnett and Liriano have made 10 starts. The Pirates are 8-2 in those games.
To boot, Charlie Morton’s return has gone better than even he and those in the organization would. He has a 1.93 ERA, scattering four total runs over a pair of seven inning starts already.
On May 18 I wrote that if the Pirates began capitalizing on their excellent starting pitching, it’d give them a good shot to win three of every five games. Now that they’re doing so, they’ve done even better.
There were of course some aberrations lately. Liriano had one of his “Bad Frank” starts against Minnesota to start the last homestand, giving up seven runs in two innings, but he’s yielded two earned runs in his last 19 innings since.
The other loss when one of the Big Three started also came in a Liriano outing, the one that was ended when Derek Norris traded in the embarrassment of four strikeouts in one game to bask in the glory of a game-winning grand slam off Rob Scahill.
Burnett has also labored through his past two starts, giving up nine runs in 10 2/3 innings. But he picked up winning decisions in each, as the offense scored 18 total runs between those two starts, picking up Burnett when it usually couldn’t in April.
Gerrit Cole has continued his Cy Young-caliber season with a 1.90 ERA. He’s allowed two earned runs over his last 22 1/3 innings.
The kicker is that, then or now, the Pirates trio of top-flight pitchers aren’t due for a lot of regression. Cole ranks fifth in the league with a 2.54 xFIP, Liriano is 10th at 2.80 and Burnett 24th at 3.25.
But the continued domination of these pitchers isn’t so much the story for the Pirates recent success, although it plays heavily into the team winning 11 of its past 15.
Most importantly, the team is finally taking advantage of its starting pitching, and not letting it go to waste as it did more often than not early on. Meaning, the Pirates are starting to put it all together.
The biggest issue was the hitting and the Pirates are scoring over five runs per game in this recent 15-game stretch. Andrew McCutchen is back to playing like himself, posting a 1.9 WAR in the last month alone while hitting .381 with a 1.127 OPS.
Josh Harrison has also broken out of his funk, Pedro Alvarez has been on one of his hot streaks, Francisco Cervelli has a .385 on-base percentage and Jung-ho Kang has kept hitting as he receives more and more playing time. Even Jordy Mercer hit a home run in each of the last two games against the Giants.
It’s unlikely the Pirates will continue to win 80 percent of the games started by Cole, Burnett and Liriano. But doing so has got their season back on track and anything close to this level of success will keep them in contention moving forward, even if the Cardinals are the only team besides the Pirates to go 8-2 in their last 10 games.