CHICAGO — Three years ago on this date, the Pittsburgh Pirates were officially eliminated from the 2012 playoffs. They had just wrapped up a loss to the Mets, completing their epic collapse that saw them drop all the way from first place and 11 games over .500 on July 18th, all the way to a 79-83 record.
Today, the Pirates wrapped up their eight road win in a row, and their 95th win of the season, beating the Cubs 4-0. Their magic number to clinch home field in the Wild Card game is down to three, and that could be one if they defeat the Cubs tomorrow. They currently sit 2.5 games out of first place in the NL Central, with the Cardinals playing tonight. They have a three game series against the Cardinals to start the week, which could play a big role in deciding the division.
Basically, the Pirates are finishing strong, three years after their worst finish ever.
“We didn’t do a very good job of it in ’11 and ’12,” Hurdle said about finishing strong. “We did a much better job of it in ’13, and especially last year we did a really solid job of it in September. This year, we started a little slow in September. We obviously picked up momentum across the board.”
Today’s example came from a 4-0 victory over the Cubs, led by Francisco Liriano, who pitched 7.2 innings of shutout ball. Liriano was pitching on seven days rest, getting a bit of a break after some rough outings recently. He said that his body feels better after the rest, and Hurdle felt that the extra rest helped him out, along with helping out Gerrit Cole, who also received rest and had a big game against the Cubs yesterday. In Liriano’s case, the lefty noted that the rest allows him to get better command of the fastball, allows him to throw down in the zone, and makes it so that he doesn’t have to try too hard to make good pitches.
“When he has fastball command, that’s when he becomes special,” Hurdle said. “He had fastball command today. When he’s throwing strikes with the fastball, it just changes the whole dynamic of the at-bat. With the spin pitches, with the changeup, with the slider. And he had it today. He was very aggressive with the fastball. Changed speeds extremely well. Was very unpredictable.”
Liriano’s start was great to shut down the Cubs offense, but the Pirates needed a boost from their own offense to help him out. They got that in the fifth inning from Jordy Mercer. Cubs starter Jason Hammel shut them down the first four innings, giving up just a well-hit double to Travis Snider in the first, and a double to Andrew McCutchen that died in the wind in deep center and landed in the ivy, rather than going over the fence.
“We thought we had pitches to hit, and before you know it, we’re topping balls, we’re getting ground balls, mis-hitting them,” Hurdle said about Hammel’s performance, while mentioning that he had good sink and spin early in the game.
In the fifth inning, the Pirates were able to put together a nice sequence that gave them the runs they needed to win. Francisco Cervelli started off with a single, then moved to second when Pedro Alvarez followed up with a single of his own. That’s when Jordy Mercer came to the plate and delivered a three-run homer, his first home run since June 3rd.
“I thought that we hit some balls hard against him,” Mercer said of Hammel. “He was going fastball early, and we were jumping on him. Didn’t get the results that we wanted to, but got a couple guys on and got a pitch up and put a good swing on it. I didn’t think it was going to go out because of the wind.”
Mercer said he was sticking to his normal gap-to-gap approach, and wasn’t trying to hit a home run in that situation. I don’t think anyone can argue with the result.
Liriano carried the team from there, continuing his strong performance on the mound. He even picked up two hits on the day, and now has an .875 OPS at the plate in 24 plate appearances since the start of August, which is a huge improvement over his .150 OPS through July.
“He’s kind of been a late bloomer,” Hurdle joked about Liriano’s offense after the game.
The one time Liriano ran into trouble was the eighth inning, when he was over 100 pitches and put two runners on via walks with two outs. The Pirates had a four run lead at the time, but didn’t take any chances with Anthony Rizzo up, and called on Antonio Bastardo. The lefty was able to get Rizzo to fly out to center field, ending the threat. Joakim Soria came on in the ninth inning and closed things out, with the two middle relievers giving Mark Melancon and Tony Watson a rest today.
“Bastardo has really pitched well for us,” Hurdle said. “It started towards the end of the first half. His confidence level is good. He’s a member of that bullpen. He’s gotten big outs for us. The roles continue to grow and evolve a little bit as we’ve moved into the season, based on usage. Those back two guys [also] pitched the eighth inning two days ago.”
The Pirates have had a few instances where they’ve gotten close to the Cardinals, only to fall back out of the race. Their recent play has put them within striking distance once again, with that big St. Louis series coming up on Monday.
“We’re just playing good baseball right now,” Liriano said. “We’ve just got to continue to play the way we’re playing right now. We’re not done yet. We’re still chasing the Cardinals, so we’re not done yet.”
**Jordy Mercer on Liriano’s performance: “He was unbelievable. He was throwing every pitch wherever he wanted to. Anytime in the count. Keeping guys off-balance. He was unhittable almost. And he got two hits, too. Can’t knock the guy for that.”
**Along with his home run, Mercer showed off his usual strong work at shortstop today, including a very nice attempt in the hole where he ranged into the grass in right field and almost got a runner at second base. “He’s such a reliable defender that he puts away outs all the time, and he can go make that above average play that only gifted shortstops can make,” Hurdle said of his defense.
**The Pirates gave Gregory Polanco a break today due to his knee. Travis Snider stepped up in his place and went 1-for-3.
**Clint Hurdle had a very specific strategy for calling on the strong defensive replacements today. Snider struck out in the fifth inning, and was replaced on defense by Jaff Decker in the bottom half of the inning. Pedro Alvarez picked up a fielder’s choice in the sixth, and was replaced by Sean Rodriguez as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Aramis Ramirez finished the seventh inning with a ground out and was replaced by Josh Harrison at the bottom half of the inning.
In each case, the Pirates traded maybe one or two at-bats for several innings of stronger defense. They got five innings of defense from Decker in exchange for two at-bats taken away from Snider. They traded three innings of Harrison over Ramirez — who is still a little sore from his groin pull — and only gave up one at-bat. And they got four innings of Rodriguez at first base, while only giving up one at-bat from Alvarez. That move paid off, as Rodriguez hit a double in his only at-bat, bringing in the fourth run of the game to add some insurance, and possibly keep Watson and Melancon on the bench.
In each case, a player was pulled right after an at-bat in the middle of the game, with only 1-2 at-bats possible for the rest of the game. As a result, the Pirates got stronger defense to help them close things out, with all three defensive upgrades appearing for the final three innings.