PITTSBURGH — For much of the 2015 season, it has been the Pirates’ pitching staff that has carried the load while the offense sporadically chipped in.
The month of August has been a different story. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have seen a bit of a drop off in performance this month and their starts have lacked the length they provided in the first half. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke have continued the inconsistency often seen from fourth and fifth starters, and J.A. Happ has been brought in to bridge the gap until A.J. Burnett returns from the Disabled List.
The starting rotation has been inconsistent this month and has been unable to accrue a significant amount of innings — it ranks 28th in baseball in innings pitched and 19th in ERA in the month of August.
Their August performance is a massive drop-off in production compared to the first half of the season, when the rotation ranked sixth in baseball in innings pitched to go along with the third best ERA. This month, the rotation has been keeping the Pirates in games, as opposed to winning the Pirates games like they were in the first three and a half months of the season.
Liriano was okay in tonight’s start against Arizona, but continued the recent trend. He was erratic to start the game, giving up three straight base hits and a walk that gave Arizona an early 1-0 lead, and was still faced with a bases-loaded, no-out situation. He was able to minimize the damage, however, by inducing a groundball double-play that scored Arizona’s second run, followed by a fly out to right field to end the inning.
After allowing a third run in the second inning, Liriano found a rhythm starting in the third inning. Over the next five frames, he allowed only one base runner via a third inning walk, and retired 13 straight Diamondback hitters in efficient fashion.
“The same thing happened to me the last couple of starts, [I was] rushing, trying to do too much,” Liriano explained after the game. “Tonight, I was able to settle down and make some good pitches, hit my spot.”
Liriano went out to start the eighth inning, but was quickly removed after allowing a base hit and a walk. Jared Hughes relieved Liriano, but was unable to record an out, after allowing a sharp single into center field, followed by a bases-loaded walk to Paul Goldschmidt. Tony Watson came in and cleaned up the mess left by Liriano and Hughes, extinguishing the Diamondbacks rally and allowing only one additional run to score. Unfortunately for Liriano, both of the Diamondbacks’ eighth inning runs were charged to him.
Overall, Liriano went seven-plus innings, and was charged with five earned runs on six hits and three walks. As previously mentioned, he kept the Pirates in the game, but once again did not provide a vintage Francisco Liriano dominating performance that we’ve been so accustomed to seeing. The biggest positive to come out of his outing was the length he provided. It’s the first time Liriano completed seven innings since July 2nd.
In the first half of the season, it was a virtual lock that the Pirates would lose the game if their starting pitcher gave up five runs. However, in the month of August the offense has been so effective that the pressure on the starting rotation to be perfect has diminished.
The Pirates’ offense ranks fourth in the Majors with a 124 wRC+ in the month of August, compared to their 14th ranking in the first half. Much of this improvement can be credited to the emergence of Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez, but the Pirates have been getting production throughout the entire lineup, from the top to the bottom. In August, Polanco has a .985 OPS, Andrew McCutchen has a 1.071 OPS, Aramis Ramirez has a .750 OPS, Neil Walker has a .858 OPS, Pedro Alvarez has a 1.063 OPS, and Francisco Cervelli has a .944 OPS.
This also doesn’t include the unexpected contributions from guys such as Francisco Liriano — five RBIs over his last three starts — and bench players like Pedro Florimon, who provided the game-winning hit tonight, and scored two key runs in last weekend’s series sweep of the Mets.
The Pirates’ offensive explosion mixed with the incredible performances from the bullpen has prevented the team from missing a beat — a 10-5 record through their toughest stretch of the season.
Neal Huntington has often said that we’ve yet to see the Pirates’ best baseball so far this season, and it’s hard to disagree with him. If they can find a way to get the offense, starting rotation and bullpen all clicking at the same time, look out.
**Is Joe Blanton Huntington’s best addition from July’s trade deadline? Blanton earned the win tonight, pitching another three scoreless innings — his fifth consecutive scoreless outing. He has an 0.87 ERA and a 1.96 xFIP in 10.1 innings pitched since joining the Pirates.
Arquimedes Caminero also pitched three scoreless innings tonight, stretching his scoreless streak to 10.1 innings, in which he’s struck out 14 batters and has a groundball rate of over 63%.
“Both of them stepped up big again tonight,” Hurdle raved following the game. “Caminero has worked himself back to a very consistent, solid place. Blanton is five outs short of throwing a complete-game shutout over the last five days, which is remarkable in and of itself.”
Caminero and Blanton rank third and fifth respectively in the Majors among relief pitchers in Win-Probability Added during the month of August, according to FanGraphs.
The Pirates send J.A. Happ to the mound in search of the series win on Wednesday night against Robbie Ray and the Diamondbacks.