PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates put on a national showcase this weekend. They were on ESPN on Friday night, FOX on Saturday, and the ESPN game of the week tonight. Three nationally televised games, and three wins gave the Pirates a highly broadcasted sweep over the best team in the NL West.
The showcase this weekend made one thing clear: The Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball.
This was pretty much the equivalent of a playoff series. The Pirates won in walk off fashion on Friday. They out-slugged the Dodgers in the early innings Saturday, then won a battle of the bullpens. And tonight they went down 5-1, and just when it looked hopeless, they battled back to 5-3 on an Andrew McCutchen home run, and exploded for nine runs in the seventh inning to go on and beat the Dodgers 13-6.
These weren’t easy wins. This wasn’t an easy opponent. And yet the Pirates made it happen on some of the biggest televised stages.
You could spend time worrying about the likelihood that they will end up facing one of the best pitchers in baseball if they continue their current path to the Wild Card game. Those potential opponents would be Max Scherzer, Jacob DeGrom, Jon Lester, or Madison Bumgarner. All of those pitchers rank among the best in baseball, but they don’t hold a candle to Clayton Kershaw at his best. And that’s the pitcher the Pirates defeated on Friday.
Kershaw entered the game with 34 shutout innings in his previous four starts, striking out 45 batters and walking just one. Against the Pirates he gave up four runs in six innings. The Pirates went up against the best pitcher in the NL at his very best, and they came away with the win. This is not an offense that stands zero chance against some of the best pitchers in baseball.
“We believe we have a good offensive club,” Clint Hurdle said after tonight’s game. “People talk about how you finish way more than how you started. The offense seems to be picking up some traction. The runs we scored in the month of July – I believe we were second in the league.”
Hurdle was wrong there. The Pirates weren’t second in the NL in July. They were first in the NL.
But ignore the fact that this is an offense that can hold their own against good pitchers. Focusing on good opposing pitchers ignores one key factor, illustrated by the following comparison:
Max Scherzer – 2.90 xFIP
Jacob DeGrom – 2.96 xFIP
Gerrit Cole – 3.00 xFIP
Jon Lester – 3.06 xFIP
Madison Bumgarner – 3.13 xFIP
Yeah, the Pirates might have a potentially tough pitcher to face in the Wild Card game. But they’ve got a guy equally as good as any of the potential options they will face. So if the Pirates need to be worried about playing any of the four teams competing for the second Wild Card spot, then those teams definitely need to be worried about playing the Pirates.
The Pirates have an offense that seems to be coming alive lately, looking like one of the best groups in baseball. Their starting rotation has been ranked as one of the best groups in baseball, and even without A.J. Burnett, they’re still top-ten in baseball. The bullpen features two of the best relievers in baseball, and the group has really stepped up lately to bail out the starters during a rough stretch. The Pirates have an MVP, a rookie of the year candidate, two Cy Young candidates, the best closer in baseball, and more.
All of that was on display this weekend. And for the proper perspective, I talked with new Pirates first baseman Michael Morse about this very subject, getting his feel for just how good this team is, and what they showed this weekend.
“It just shows outside people, this is a good team,” Morse said. “They believe in each other. They believe that no matter what the score is, they can win it. We proved that today. There’s some big bats in this lineup. It’s tough. You pretty much have to pitch to everybody, and that’s what makes it tough. But at the same time, this team has some really good starting pitching. It’s got a hell of a bullpen. You put all of that together and it’s a dangerous team.”
Make no mistake about it, though. The Pirates weren’t specifically out to prove something this weekend. They weren’t focused on National television. Instead, their focus was very similar to another team Morse is familiar with.
“We got three games on National television right there, and we’re playing a great team. Guys around here, to them it’s just another team in their way. That mentality is something that I saw last year with the Giants,” Morse said of his time with the 2014 World Series champions. “That’s a winning mentality. These guys, they’re hungry. They’re hungry to get back, and they don’t want to be in that one [game] wild card. It’s a good group of guys, and it’s a great mindset.”
That last part might be the most interesting thing of all. A lot of people seem to be chalking the Pirates up to a future in the Wild Card game, and worrying about this strong offense having to go up against a good pitcher. There is concern over their tough schedule, which is only tough because it features good teams, without taking into account that the Pirates are one of the best teams. And during all of this, the Pirates are still focusing on the division. Morse wasn’t the first person who mentioned the division as the goal today. Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said the same thing pre-game.
“This group is fighting to win a division,” Huntington said. “This group is not going to stop fighting to win the division until it is mathematically impossible. That remains our goal.”
It has seemed all summer that it would be impossible to catch the Cardinals. Even after taking three of four against the Cardinals heading into the All-Star break, the Pirates fell back in the standings and St. Louis rebounded. In the last series against the Cardinals, the Pirates showed they were one of the best teams in baseball. They showed that again tonight. And with a three game series coming up in St. Louis, they’re going to need to show it again this week, especially if they want to reach their goal of winning the NL Central.
**Pirates Offense Explodes vs Dodgers, But Don’t Ignore This Key Performer. Sean McCool with the game story tonight, looking at the big seventh inning, but also focusing on how Arquimedes Caminero shut down the Dodgers’ offense.
**Prospect Watch: Tarpley Strikes Out Nine, Holmes Goes Four Shutout Innings. Tarpley continues his hot stretch, which I wrote about a bit after his last outing.
**Injury Updates: Mercer’s Rehab moved up to Tuesday; Scahill to Altoona. Good news for Mercer, who gets moved up for his rehab work.
**The Impressive Performance Hidden Behind Kevin Newman’s Numbers. I’ll be covering his West Virginia debut tomorrow, although I got to see him in Morgantown this week, and was impressed by what I saw on the field.
**Cole Tucker Placed on Disabled List, Kevin Newman Joins Power Tomorrow. The Pirates finally place Tucker on the DL.
**Morning Report: Luplow and Polo Putting Up Impressive Totals. John Dreker takes a look at two guys who are quietly putting up some impressive numbers in key categories.