First Pitch: Jake Arrieta, Matching the Cardinals, and the Pirates’ Playoff Chances

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.

  • Tim, ill take you’re word for it that Delpiano was a great scout who discovered some of Searage and Benedicts science projects. But somebody in that department needs to watch the Brewers better.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 7, 2015 10:57 am

    All of those losses to the Reds and Brewers have cost the Pirates the division, barring a miraculous finish to overtake the Cardinals. Now, they play the Reds again….anything less than a sweep will not help our chances of catching St Louis.

  • I hope we face Arrieta twice this month (which is the case with the current rotation schedule). That should help us going into the WC game. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if Madden juggles his rotation to keep that from happening.

    • Those games will probably decide home field in the WC game. Why would Madden not put his best pitcher out there for that?

      • Probably he will, but is winning home field more important than limiting your opponent’s exposure to the pitcher they’ll see in that game? I think that might be debatable.

  • With Banister’s success in Texas, I’m worried we’ll also lose a member or two of our coaching staff. (But I’m happy for Banister’s success.)

  • Nevermind.

  • The road to the championship can have many paths, but the bottom line is you are either good enough, and prepared enough, and determined enough to get there or you aren’t. I’m less concerned with the path than how the effort they put in when they are there.
    Last year’s game against SF was a joke, Baumgarner wasn’t the issue, the Bucs effort was awful. They must come into any seriers with a will not lose attitude and take what they want. It’s the only way.

    • It’s easy to say the effort was awful, but in reality when going up against someone as dominant as Mad Bum was that night it’s hard to do any of the little things that “show” effort.

    • Are you really that blind that you couldn’t see how well Baumgarner pitched in that WC game ? And then every time out after that. ? If you didn’t see it, I would suggest you find another sport to watch.

    • Seems there were a lot of playoff teams last year that didn’t show effort against Bumgarner.

    • Last year, Madison Bumgarner began with us on what was one of the most incredible postseason runs a pitcher has ever had. He carried the Giants.

      Sometimes, effort isn’t the issue. Sometimes, a guy just executes. MadBum executed for an entire postseason consecutively.

      You think the Pirates weren’t trying in the Wild Card game last year? Do you think the Reds weren’t trying the year before that when they lost to us? The “Will to Win” is almost never the problem. Every team goes into the playoffs with a “will not lose attitude,” as you put it. All but one of them eventually lose anyway.

  • Or are the Blue Jays the AL’s best team? God they can hit…

  • Gerrit Cole wasn’t an Ace upon arrival and has made some critical adjustments over the last three years, especially his slider becoming more of a vertical drop.

    But, this narrative that he was a ‘strong #4’ pitcher in 2013 isn’t remotely accurate. He had a 2.91 FIP and a 3.14 xFIP, the former being .21 worse than 2015 and the latter being slightly better than 2015, respectively. He wasn’t K’ing as many guys and wasn’t as ‘dominating’, but he also surely wasn’t a ‘strong #4’; he was clearly and much better than that.

    It’s one thing to acknowledge his transformation and adjustments and laud his experience. It’s quite another to say he was something that he clearly wasn’t just to put emphasis on his improvement and struggles that prospects go through. In Cole’s case, he was a prospect that has gotten better, but he didn’t struggle nearly as much as those preaching patience would have you believe.

  • Cole was a real bulldog last night. Made great pitch after great pitch. Very impressive start indeed.

    I doubt the Cards want Pirates to win WC game. They know Pirates are a tougher matchup w their more experienced lineup and Pitching staff. Plus Pirates want some payback for 2013, too.

  • Heading down the stretch with a decided advantage in that the Pirates have played only 67 at home and 68 on the road. The Cardinals, who have an excellent home field advantage, have played 71 at home and only 65 on the road, while the Cubs to this point have played 71 at home and only 64 on the road.

    When Arrieta won the other day they posted his stats over the past 7 games as 7-0 with an ERA around 0.35? Sooner or later the Law of Averages catches up. Many of our guys have already worked their way through some hard times since the AS Break, while maintaining a competitive advantage with those two teams.

    The No. 1 pick in the Amateur Draft is up for grabs with about 5 or 6 teams, two of which are the Reds and the Brewers. They are always tough on the Pirates, but why are they not “tanking” instead of playing like the pennant was on the line? You think John Hart does not understand the simple fact of having the top pick in the draft?

    • You really think players give a crap about getting 1st pick or 5th pick in draft? Players play to win. Brewers/Reds both have way more talent than Braves right now.

      • Apparently the Brewers and Reds play a little harder to win when they’re playing the Pirates.

        • That’s ridiculous statement.

          • So you think the Reds players show up with the same motivation and focus regardless of whether it’s the Pirates or, say, the Rockies? They’re human.

            • They play equally hard no matter the opponent. They’re more familiar playing Pirates than Rockies, thus it should help them play better.

              • They’re human. There isn’t a person in the world that can bring equal effort to every day of work.

                And in the sports world, how do you explain rivalries where the games tend to be much closer than the records would suggest they should be?

      • No, but when you screw up the present season, why not try to get an advantage for the future?

        • Most players won’t be there when draft pick makes it to majors. This isn’t foitball or basketball.

          • Yeah, it’s possible to see a GM make an organizational decision, but you’re never going to see individual players tanking it for draft position because that will affect their personal value. In the end, it’s a profession, and making yourself look bad can impact you financially in what is already an inherently short opportunity to make money.

            • Ian: Excellent point and my reference to John Hart in Atlanta should have been an indicator that it would be the GM deciding who comes up in Sep that might have an effect on the outcome.

  • I want the pirates road to be as easy as possible. That way I can save all my stress for Steelers and Penguins.