ST. LOUIS — The Pirates entered tonight’s game against St. Louis with a very slim chance of winning the NL Central. And even after their big 7-1 win over the Cardinals tonight, they still have a slim chance at the division. They will leave St. Louis five and a half games back in the division, with the Cardinals having an easy schedule coming up that features seven games against the Reds and seven more against the Brewers. Granted, the Pirates have a similar schedule, but nothing about the recent play by the Cardinals suggests they’ll let the Pirates back in this race.
If there’s one thing to take away from this series, it’s the fact that the Pirates can go toe to toe with the Cardinals. While the Cardinals have been ripping through the rest of baseball on pace for 104 wins, the Pirates have tied them 8-8 on the season series, and have taken three of the five series against St. Louis this year.
This weekend’s series was masterful. The starting pitchers (J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole) combined for one earned run in 20 innings. The offense couldn’t hit Jaime Garcia on Saturday afternoon, but exploded for 16 runs in the other two games. That came against the best pitching staff in baseball on the season, and the best in the NL in the second half. They fell short of what they needed — a sweep — but the sweep was only needed to make up for the fact that the Pirates are having a great season, while the Cardinals are having an unbelievable season.
This series showed that the Pirates can handle the Cardinals. They’re not guaranteed to win, but a series between the two teams would be a coin flip at worst, even if the Pirates have to use Gerrit Cole in the Wild Card game. The Cardinals have struggled against Pirates’ left-handers this year, and struggled against left-handers in general. A series that saw Liriano in game one, J.A. Happ in game two, Cole returning for game three, and Liriano back for one more game would work to the advantage of the Pirates. And even though the Cardinals have had the best pitching staff in the majors, the Pirates showed recently that they can handle that staff, with 10, 9, and 7 runs in three of their last four starts against the Cardinals.
Unfortunately, the Pirates will most likely have to go through the Wild Card game to get to the Cardinals. And that means going up against Jake Arrieta, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year, and who has had the Pirates’ number, to the tune of an 0.86 ERA in 21 innings over three starts.
Fortunately, Gerrit Cole is looking like an ace once again, after some brief struggles to start the second half. And he’s also had the Cubs’ number, with a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings over two starts. The Pirates saw what an ace could do last year, and they’ll probably go up against another one this year. Then again, they went up against an ace two years ago and beat Johnny Cueto, so anything can happen, even if Madison Bumgarner marks the beginning of time in most people’s memories. Still, it’s nice to have an ace of their own to counter with.
The thing is, there’s no doubt that the Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball, and that was shown again this weekend. It was shown last month when they swept the Dodgers and the Mets. But their path to the World Series is a strange one. Usually the playoffs get harder as you advance, but in this case, it could get easier.
Arrieta in a one game playoff would be extremely difficult. And despite the success this weekend against St. Louis, anything can happen in that series, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another close series like we saw in 2013 that comes down to game five. But from there, it’s almost like things get a bit easier with the Mets and/or the Dodgers.
Make it past Arrieta, make it to the World Series? Not quite. But the Pirates aren’t a team that should be worried about one good pitcher. They aren’t a team that should worry about the Cardinals having the best record in baseball. They’re a team that can be legit contenders for the World Series, even if that road isn’t going to be easy.
And honestly, why would you want it to be easy? A World Series would be satisfying enough, but wouldn’t you want to see it happen by going through one of the best pitchers in baseball, the best team in baseball, maybe the biggest payroll in baseball (assuming the Dodgers go to the NLCS), and the best team in the AL (assuming the Royals make it again)? That would leave no doubt that the Pirates were the best team, as opposed to an easier path that would give them better odds to win it all. And what we’ve learned this weekend is that the Pirates don’t need the easy path, because they have what it takes to give a real shot at winning it all, even with a tough road to get there.
**I’m heading home tomorrow, and looking forward to actually spending a few weeks at home. I’ve pretty much been on the road since the last week of July, with only two quick stops back in Bradenton. My next trip is going to be up to Chicago at the end of the month for that key series against the Cubs. I also might travel to cover some playoff games if any teams make the championship, but I’m going to let our local writers handle most of the coverage, while providing commentary on all games from home, rather than focusing on just one at a time. After that, it will be up to Pittsburgh at the start of October, and hopefully I’ll have a reason to spend the entire month of October on the road.
**Did Gerrit Cole Just Submit His Resume For the Wild Card Game Starter? Tonight’s game recap from St. Louis, looking at Cole’s great outing, and how he’s the guy the Pirates should go with in the Wild Card game, assuming they end up there.
**Marlins to Hire Marc DelPiano Away From Pirates. This is a tough loss, as DelPiano was a great MLB scout for the Pirates. This is what happens when you become a successful organization. You eventually start losing talented members of the organization to other teams. The flip side to this is that this could make it easier to continue attracting talented people to replace those guys. As for the impact, a lot has been made about the Pirates’ abilities to turn around starting pitchers. Jim Benedict and Ray Searage get a ton of credit here, and rightfully so. But there’s another part of the process that doesn’t get as much attention, and that’s the MLB scouting that identifies the right pitchers to add. DelPiano was a big part of that process.
**Tyler Glasnow Working on Mechanical Consistency. Ryan Palencer wrote today about what Glasnow was working on between starts, and then…
**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Looks Outstanding in Last Regular Season Outing. …Glasnow had an amazing outing, bouncing back from his bad outing the last time out. I still don’t think Glasnow is close to being ready for the majors. He needs more than just a few good starts for that to happen. If we’ve learned anything from Polanco, it’s that Triple-A success doesn’t mean you’re ready for the majors. Even Gerrit Cole had success, then came up and looked like a strong number four starter his first few months. Glasnow is going to be a great pitcher. But the Pirates can afford to give him more time to develop in the minors right now. And hopefully we’ll see these types of outings on a more consistent basis.
**Could A.J. Burnett and Travis Ishikawa Return This Week? I’d expect both back soon, possibly even by the middle of the week.
**Jameson Taillon and Other Rehab Guys Shut Down Until Instructs. Some updates on Taillon’s status, plus Casey Sadler, Angel Sanchez, Clay Holmes, and Orlando Castro.