First Pitch: Introducing America to One of the Best Teams in Baseball

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.

  • But they puke all over themselves in St. Louis. Hurry up Josh Bell!!

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 10, 2015 10:23 pm

    I made the mistake of watching the Steelers preseason game for the first 3 quarters (although I was paying attention to the Pirates via, and turned over to the Pirates game in the bottom of the 7th – it was 5-3, but they had two runners on. What an amazing inning that was….I did feel a little sorry for Jim Johnson. Some of his pitches weren’t that bad, he just couldn’t put anyone away.

    It was a great night for my hometown of Pittsburgh and for Pirates fans everywhere, who suffered through 20+ years of misery. It seemed at times like we would forever be losers.

    By the way, PNC Park is without a doubt the best ballpark in MLB….just a gorgeous setting.

  • I think Arrieta would get that WC start over Lester, if rest wasnt a factor. Maybe some will disagree but I think he’s the better pitcher right now.

    Owns the Buccos, too.

    • I’d like to ask what others think about the Pirates being hit so much. I can understand some of Marte HBs because he leans in and the book is to pitch him inside. I also understand we pitch inside. Kang and McCutchen seem to be getting thrown out the major percentage of times when they are hit. Ex-player on air guys seem to agree. Kang exudes confidence now and toughness now and he several times has delivered big hits after being hit. Does anybody think other teams might be reacting to Pirate hand and arm motions back and forth celebrating with the bench after a hit? After Cutch homers, he turns towards first base dugout and tips his cap……..anybody heard why? Pirates had a big lead and three hit batsmen, and chose not to retaliate. Even if all three were unintentional the issue is out there.

    • I can’t wait to see this play out, Arthur, for entertainment value alone.

      Arrieta is the better pitcher, and the better matchup right now against this Pirate club; but John Lester is the Cub’s $150m Designated Ace of the staff.

      • Yes. I watched most of that game yesterday, and he shut down a very good SF lineup. Right now, i dont think the Pirates want anything to do with that curveball.

    • I think Arrieta would get the start too. Maddon likes to play the best players with or without name…and Arrieta has owned the Pirates and is, frankly, pitching much better than Lester.

  • After the St. Louis series right before the break, Schilling said something along the lines of, “the best thing about this for the Pirates is that for the rest of the year, they know they will never be out of any game.” Boy was that prophetic…

  • Why is it that about the only lefty the pirates don’t make look like clayton kershaw is…clayton kershaw. This was a really big three game sweep of a team the pirates may have to face in october, yet I still can’t forget how good the pirates make mediocre to bad lefties look. I know it’s kinda silly after this stellar series sweep, it’s just that I try and focus on a weakness until it becomes a strength. Just me I guess.

  • The Bucs showed a very good offensive against the Dodgers but it came against very weak pitching including a poor performance by Kershaw. Now they go to the best pitching staff in all of baseball in St Louis where they have a crazy good record and then on to a very good Mets team with killer starting pitching. I don’t see them scoring anywhere near the same and their pitching will have to be very good to even have a chance at splitting the 6 games. Unfortunately as well as they have played they really haven’t gained much ground and the Cubbies are breathing down their throats. If this team has any real chance at taking the division they will have to take at least 2 in St. Louis and 2 in NY. I don’t see that happening but I know that they have the ability if they keep up the excellent Pitching, Defense and hot hitting.

    • Bravo, sir. If there isnt one “watch out we might be in trouble!” post per day i think the site crashes.

      Why is it when a SP does poorly, the offense doesnt seem to get credit for their part in that….but lord help us if a non quality pitcher does well its mostly the offense getting blame and the SP is just junk that got lucky.

      If Kershaw can have an off night, so can any STL pitcher when our offense is on. Execute a gameplan well and any pitcher can struggle. Most importantly, get to the bullpen.

      • You gotta think at some point guys like Martinez and Wacha are gonna wear down somewhat. Neither have pitched a full season. Tuesday is Locke vs Martinez which is very important. If Locke can go a solid 6 and we come out with a win then we have good matchups the next 2 nights with Cole/Wacha on ESPN and Liriano/Lynn on thursday. The Bucs always seem to do well against Lynn and Liriano always pitches well against the Cards. I think Cole is due for a dominant game anyways. Remember, the Bucs destroyed the Mets earlier this year. They can do it again. That series shows Colon, Neise, and Harvey as the starters.

    • The Cubs have won 10 of 11 and have picked up a game on the Pirates.

    • Check Greinke’s career numbers against the Pirates and se if you think he would have made a difference in this series. You WILL be surprised.

  • Lots to feel good about after this series, but Kershaw was certainly not at his best on Friday. I would much rather face Friday night Kershaw than Bumgarner from last year’s WC game. I like the Pirates’ chances if they can get the WC game at home again, but they will almost certainly need to beat better pitching than anything the Dodgers had this weekend.

  • That was a good read, Tim.

    Trying to take the high road here, but it seems many folks – both media and fans – have been missing the forest through the trees watching this club play baseball. No, it’s not often pretty; they don’t play flashy nor consistent defense, they don’t have a “big bopper” cleanup hitter at first base, they don’t have a .400 OBP leadoff hitter, they don’t have five strong starters or consistent middle relief.

    But what can unquestionably be stated as fact at this point in the season is that they have the depth of quality talent necessary to be one of the very best teams playing baseball in 2015. Watch enough teams outside of Pittsburgh and you’ll realize this isn’t the heyday of good, classic baseball played in the ’60s or whatever generation you prefer to wax poetic. Every club is flawed. Every club has holes. But when you drop all the narratives and focus on results, the Pirates rise pretty damn high on the list, and it isn’t a fluke.

    No better illustration of narrative vs reality can be seen than the Josh Harrison injury. Certain bloggers twisted themselves in circles trying to one-up each other when Harrison went down with narratives about bleak drafting, lack of farm system, poor depth, etc. I mean, BRENT MOREL, for christsakes. Along comes Aramis Ramirez to save the day to the tune of -0.5 WAR in his first 52 PA; more than twice as bad as Mr Morel was last season. The equivalent of taking the money remaining on his contract, dousing it in lighter fluid, and starting a good ol fashioned dumpster fire.

    And guess what; that’s OK! Because there are many other guys on this club that are really, really good at baseball. Which is the point.

    • Scott Kliesen
      August 10, 2015 10:05 am

      And to add on to your narrative, last night was their major league leading 34th come from behind victory I believe. And they also are about 10 games over .500 in one run games, too. Both of these stats speak to the resolve of this team and the leadership exemplified by coaches and players.

    • Going forward wouldn’t you still much rather see Ramirez at the plate with runners in scoring position than Morel? Yes he got off to a bad start but he is starting to show his ability and I believe that he will come up with some very big and timely hits the rest of the way and into the playoffs if they do make it.

      • Sure I do! Or better yet, I’d like to see Josh Harrison, who maybe can actually be a good baseball player.

        My point is that this is a matter of personal comfort, not logical results. Ramirez has given the Pirates less than nothing, and they have won more than twice as many games as they have lost since the trade.

        This team may not “feel” like they’re as good as they are, but relative to the rest of Major League Baseball teams in 2015, they are. They just are. Simple as that.

    • I really liked the second paragraph NMR. Most don’t get that other teams have lots of holes. I would like to point out that even though A. Ramirez hasn’t been all that productive himself, take a look at how well McCutchen has done with that bat behind him in the lineup. Coincidence ? I doubt it.

      • I’ve been thinking about the premise of that second paragraph lately, and Mike’s comment about people outside of Pittsburgh complimenting the Pirates below adds to this…

        Think about the current state of baseball TV ratings. People simply do not watch “other” baseball anymore. Hell, Dejan – a journalist who pretends to be in touch with the current state of Major League Baseball – has even admitted to not watching the damn playoffs last year. How many NL West matchups in May do you think he’s tuning into? How many American League teams do you think he’s even seen play? He’s obviously not alone.

        What makes these people feel like they’re qualified to judge “what winning teams do” when they don’t even bother to watch the actual games?

        The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates are a flawed baseball team that’s STILL pretty damn good relative to the state of Major League Baseball in 2015. If you don’t actually understand the latter, you’ll never be able to appreciate the former.

        • Excellent NMR, excellent. DK’s problem is that he is an expert on every major sport, and might even consider himself a management prospect.

    • “Every club is flawed. Every club has holes. But when you drop all the narratives and focus on results, the Pirates rise pretty damn high on the list, and it isn’t a fluke.”

      Preach! The biggest thing that annoys me right now is acting like the Pirates can’t be a good team if they have any holes. Like they can’t continue to win with a lack of production at first base, even though they were on pace for 95 wins without production at first all year. Or they might not have the best possible player on the bench, which means there’s no way they’ll win. That ignores that the World Series teams last year featured Travis Ishikawa and Jayson Nix.

      • As a guy who loves baseball but doesn’t care enough about other sports to give them time, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed P2’s work lately. The quality and depth of your coverage makes it obvious you guys eat, sleep, and breathe baseball all the way up through the Major League level.

        I can understand how casual fans are attracted to surface-deep hot takes, but there’s a reason you guys have time and time again come out looking prophetic compared to local all-sport outlets. You understand the current state of a changing game.

      • It doesnt help the casual fan that St. Louis wont lose and despite the fact that the Pirates have the 3rd best winning percentage in all of baseball they continually are well behind the Cardinals. That fact magnifies the holes that the Pirates have because it seems like it is those holes that will keep the Bucs from catching the Cards…when, in reality, the Cards will only be caught if/when their incredible good fortune runs dry.

    • You’ve summed up my thoughts over the last three months in about 300 words, well done.

  • The headline on would read, “Introducing America to One of the Worst Bullpens in Baseball.”

  • The Pirates trail the Cards by four games in the loss column. They play their next three games against the Cards. Then the schedule becomes a bit easier for the rest of the month.

    • Scott Kliesen
      August 10, 2015 9:58 am

      Going to Citi Field to play a rejuvenated Mets team is no walk in the park. Thankfully, I hope, they get Colon and Niese, and miss Syndegaard and DeGrom.

      • And the Dbacks are playing decent baseball while the Giants are likely to be very desperate when they visit PNC.

      • Looks like the matchups for the Mets series are:
        Colon vs. Locke
        Niese vs Cole
        Harvey vs Liriano

        Which seems optimal all things considered. Miss the two absurdly good rookies, if Liriano is good to go we counter Harvey with a TOR arm. Decent offensive showing and thats a winnable series.

        • The 3 pitchers you mentioned above are the 3 pitchers going against the Cards so they’d all be going on 3 days rest. Remember they are skipping Happ in the rotation. He will most likely go sunday against Harvey.

        • I do not think the pitching matchups will be all that favorable for the Pirates at all. It looks like it will be Morton-Happ-Locke. 5 days rest for Locke (who pitches tomorrow) is the Sunday game against the Mets…that means that it will be, likely:

          Niese:Happ (replacement?)

          That does not look favorable to the Pirates in any of the THREE games!

          • True, i say we skip those games and take the 3 losses and save the effort. Not like our offense can carry us to a win when Morton or Locke struggle.

  • Not to nitpick, but Kershaw was at 37 innings when Polanco welcomed him to PNC Park!

  • Obviously a great team win last night to cap off a hard fought sweep.

    Couple thoughts. First, how bad did Don Mattingly mismanage his bullpen in the 7th?! He’s got Howell, a low ERA lefty, ready in pen to face Walker up 5-4, but instead leaves Johnson in. Walker ties game up. Then to double down on his error, he lets Johnson stay in to face Polanco, who he walks. The floodgates opened afterwards.

    ESPN flashed to Howell in pen and I thought I saw him mouth the words, “that’s my f’ing job” to the bullpen coach after they walked Polanco. And he’s right, but Mattingly just left Johnson in to get steamrolled for 8 earned runs! Brilliant job Mattingly!

    Second, Pirates SP better get better in a hurry. No way Pirates win series vs Cardinals with the piss poor SP the Pirates got this weekend.

    • Scott: Yep, the SP’s are struggling and the bats keep finding ways to overcome this current problem. For most of the year it was the SP’s overcoming the failures of the bats. It works, but I agree they “better get better”.

      • Scott Kliesen
        August 10, 2015 10:01 am

        Cards staff isn’t going to be giving up 8 runs/game like the vaunted Dodgers just did. That you can take to the bank.

        • Clayton Kershaw hadnt given up a run in 37 innings until the first pitch to Polanco. So maybe assuming things in baseball isnt wise. Hottest pitcher in baseball was human, STL can be human as well.

          STL isnt likely to give up a ton of runs, but neither was LAD. Get to the bullpen often and good things happen.

          • The Cardinals bullpen is much superior to the one we just faced against the Dodgers, first of all, and the starting pitching is much more consistent. The Cardinals are a tough, tough team…if we can win 2 out of 3 it will be a major win for us.

            • Well, no, STL SP isnt any more consistent than Kershaw over the last 2 months. Yes, the entire staff is more consistent but Kershaw was flat out dominate and we found a way.

              Also, while the bullpen is better, its also the bullpen for a reason. You kick SP out by the 6th and you are facing sub optimal arms. STL isnt perfect, its a tough series just like LAD was. Offense keeps performing well and we can score many runs.

        • Sorry scott but do you really think cardinals have a starting pitcher remotely as good as kershaw. We can score on all those guys and have very good numbers vs martinez and lance lynn

  • Cutch for President!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Talent, character & charisma = one of the best players in the game!!!

    I think the Pirates should be looking at ways to keep him past 2018. This is a rare talent! And to think he was drafted under the “ancien regime” although I have seen articles (on P2?) suggesting that Littlefield has dragged into this choice by his scouts.

    Yahoo, what a player!!!! And the rest of the team ain’t too bad either – Starling & Gregory haven’t reached their potential yet and Jung Ho Kang is quite the story,& let’s not forget the Real Deal Neil!!! Don’t want to get too far ahead but it would be fantastic to see AJ and ARam go out on a real high!

    But Cutch – lights out doesn’t begin to describe it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • bert: Many of us have that same opinion. The ridiculous part of this is that in his option year of 2018, he will still only be making $14.5 mil. I think an extension could be a strong possibility this off-season.

      • If we want to extend Cutch, we need to do it soon so that he can earn more in the short-term in exchange for staying here for the long-term. I’d love for Cutch to spend his career with the Bucs even though it may not make sense from a purely performance perspective.

        • Cutch is one of those iconic players that should spend his entire career in one city. He’s essentially the Derek Jeter of Pittsburgh. I still say, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Cutch give the Bucs a hometown discount for a long term deal. By that, I’m thinking like 6/150 or 7/175. He could easily get more than 25 AAV on the open market. He would get more than Cano. Although Cano’s AAV isn’t more than 25. His contract is more about length. I think with Cano’s and Pujols contracts teams are less likely to give players in their 30’s ten year contracts. Cutch is a class act and I think it’s possible the Bucs keep him in Pittsburgh for less than $200MM.

    • You are correct. I’ve talked with people in the organization at the time who said the scouts begged DL to take McCutchen. That’s why I laugh when people who still complain about Huntington by saying DL drafted Cutch.

      • Tim, do you sense there is internal consideration of actually trying to resign Cutch beyond 2018? Do you give that any realistic chance? And would you agree with it assuming there would be some severe concessions made elsewhere to accommodate his salary?

        • It’s hard to say, because that’s so far off. I don’t think they’re focused on something like that during the season.

        • Last nights home run was all bat speed. Bat speed and his batting eye…both of those things age pretty well. I would, honestly, think that McCutchen would continue to hit for a long time because his bat speed is incredible…maybe even better than “elite”…like out-of-this-world.