PITTSBURGH — Last Friday, before the Pirates began a seven-game homestand against the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, there was a feeling that it was going to make or break the Pirates season.

“It’s two teams in front of us,” pitcher Jameson Taillon said on Friday. “No team has really run away with it. If we put together a nice home stand, we’re in it. … You never really know what can happen.”

The Pirates took two out of three games from the Cardinals, winning them both in dramatic, walk-off fashion. Still, general manager Neal Huntington said that the four games against the Brewers would have an outsized effect on the way he approached the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

“Every game matters,” Huntington said Sunday. “That’s one of the things that we need to move forward with. Obviously, an 0-4 changes the dynamic pretty significantly. If we go 4-0, it changes the dynamic in a much more positive direction.”

The Pirates went 4-0.

Carried by three hits from Chris Stewart, a solid outing from Jameson Taillon and a Gregory Polanco home run, they prevailed, 4-2 over the Brewers Thursday afternoon to complete a four-game sweep.

After the seven-game homestand, the Pirates are 48-48, they’ve passed the Cardinals for third place and are just three games behind the first-place Brewers. They’ve won 6 of 7 since the break and 11 of 13 overall.

Now, there can be no doubt. There’s going to be a pennant race in the NL Central and the Pirates are in the thick of it. It’s been a pretty dramatic turnaround. Just 16 days ago, they were nine games under .500.

“That’s just the way it goes,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “I was hitting .200 at one point in time. You just never know. You just have to keep pushing, keep going moving forward and believing in each other. When you’ve got guys showing up and stars showing up like they have this homestand, good things are going to happen. When we play our best baseball, we can compete with anybody. We’ve been doing that right now. We’re going to keep going.”

TRADE WINDS CHANGING?

As Huntington alluded to and as Tim Williams wrote earlier on Thursday, the big series likely changed the plans of Huntington as the team approaches the trade deadline.

Inside the club? The trade deadline is about the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

“I don’t care about the trade deadline, I just care about winning,” McCutchen said. “That’s all that matters.”

“Nothing’s changed, honestly,” reliever Tony Watson added. “Until something happens, I’ll be a Pirate, but we’re playing well here, so hopefully, nothing happens.”

“We’re putting it all together,” outfielder Gregory Polanco said. “The starting pitching has been good, the bullpen has been just amazing. It’s been fun to have it come together.”

ON TO THE NEXT ONE

While the focus is on the division, the Pirates also gained some ground in the Wild Card race, as well. They’re now 7.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies, and that should set up yet another big series as the Pirates travel there next.

“It’s been a good series for us being able to sweep the first-place team like we did,” McCutchen said. “It’s been big for us. It doesn’t get any easier for us going into Colorado now. That’s another good team.”

As the team goes forward in a more competitive environment, Hurdle doesn’t expect much to change.

“I don’t think we’re doing a whole lot of scoreboard watching, we’re just focused on playing our best ball,” he said. “We’ve got a game in Colorado tomorrow that we’ll need to get ready for.”

NET GAINS

As the Pirates entered the All-Star break, Baseball Prospectus calculated their playoff odds to be 5.7 percent. In six games, they nearly doubled that figure and that’s before Thursday’s win. Fangraphs is even more bullish, giving them a 15.8 percent chance of making it to the postseason.

STEW COMES THROUGH

The Pirates got a big game from Chris Stewart, who was starting for the first time since June 9 and went 3 for 3 with a run and an RBI. Stewart also threw out a runner at second base and was lauded for his game calling as Jameson Taillon struck out eight over 5.2 innings.

“The game calling and the sequence of pitches for a guy that doesn’t play every day is really something,” Hurdle said. “He does his homework and sits in on every meeting. He knows the guys.”

“Stew is the first one here ever day,” Taillon said. “He beats all of us to the field. He’s always super prepared in the pitcher-catcher meetings, whether he’s playing or not. He’s got good input and he’s ready to play. I’m happy for him — a couple big knocks and he caught a heck of a game, too.”

On the other side of the battery, Taillon was at his very best when he struck out seven on the first eight Brewers he faced. He relied on his fastball and curveball to set up the hitters. The curve, in particular, had a devastating break on it on a hot day.

“(It was) a lot of fun today,” Stewart said. “He had some misses, but a lot of good ones in there, too. When the fastball command wasn’t really there, we were able to mix in some other stuff and keep them off-balance and mix in the changeup when we needed to.”

Taillon threw 116 pitches, a career high. Hurdle let him go back out for the sixth inning at over 100 pitches in an attempt to spare the bullpen some arms as the Pirates head to Coors Field.

“I talked to Jameson and he said he had more,” Hurdle said. “(A.J.) Schugel was out today. (Tony) Watson was out today. Any outs we could get from him would help us moving forward.”

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46 COMMENTS

  1. Oy.

    I seem to recall quite a lot of posts around here about how bad this team was and what all the Bucs were lacking.

    I must make the case that the Huntington scheme seems to be working with OBP guys and the like. Good patient at bats. Sort of a Billy Beane A’s kind of thing, I’m thinking. It didn’t look good at first when the starters were scuffling and the bullpen was lighting fires. Now?

    The young guys are chipping in. The pitching looks determined. And with the return of Marte and “The Best Outfield in Baseball” suddenly… It clicks. Man, if we had Jung Ho….

    That was an impressive home stand and the young guys who’ve played together all these years up through the minors seem to have that cohesion.

    This is a better team than we thought.

    -Wabbit

  2. “Every game matters,” Huntington said Sunday.

    I can understand that. The sting of personally traveling
    to Baltimore to watch those two games still haunts me.

  3. There’s also a report that Boston is very interested in J Hay. After this last two weeks any move of Cutch, Cole or J Hay would be a PR disaster, and Nutting would have people burning their season tickets in front of his office at PNC Park,

  4. I am just a casual fan from Germany, and I didn’t grow up with baseball, so forgive me if my knowledge is somewhat limited, but as we are still in the hunt after sweeping the Brewers, do we actually need to trade before the deadline?

    Yes, we could trade someone like Watson, but all in all our depth in the team looks good and I wouldn’t want to lose our most valuable prospects.
    Could we really upgrade any position now significantly without losing Glasnow, Meadows or someone on that level ?

    If I look at the prospects down at Indy, they all seem to be hitting well, so why not load up our roster with the top Indy players when the rosters expand?

    The youth approach seems to be working well, so why fix it if it ain’t exactly broken ?

    • Top hitters in AAA usually turn into marginal hitters in MLB. I’m not the expert on who’s going to become what, but the coaches certainly are, and they look at a lot of factors that don’t show up in the statistics: swing path, plate approach (what gets swung at), exit velocity, and a lot of other things. Marginal guys like Phil Gosselin and Max Moroff are AAA stars. Better AAA players like Josh Bell and Adam Frazier pass all the non-statistical tests as well as the statistical ones and become MLB regulars with a chance at becoming more than that. That step from AAA to MLB is huge.

      Yeah, anyone who has upgraded significantly in the last couple weeks (Cubs, Yankees) has pretty much lopped the top off their farm system. But the goal is to win the pennant. My thought personally is that I’d want more than a 15% best estimate chance of making the playoffs before I’d sell the future. I’d want something like 50% chance of taking it all before I’d make that move. I’m more inclined to see if Cutch or Cole would pry Gleyber Torres from the Yanks, with other pieces balancing it out (no, I wouldn’t do that deal, not with Torres’ recent injury).

    • The youth approach is starting to show some very positive signs of working out but it can certainly be augmented without giving up any of our absolute best prospects. The Pirates’ system has a lot of pitching prospects at the upper levels of the minors as well as a new very promising crop developing in the lower minors so I would be surprised if the deadline passes and someone of the Eppler/Holmes/Hutchison/Waddell type of pitching prospect isn’t traded kind of similar to Adrian Sampson for JA Happ a few years ago.

    • Any September call-up still needs to be on the 40 man roster. If he is not, then room needs to be made. There is enough fluff on the 40 man, that making room isn’t that hard, but you also want to make sure you are making to correct decision. Take Austin Meadows for example. He should be the one player that can provide the most upside to the team in September, however, he hasn’t been hitting well for the better part of the season, and he is continually hurt. Do you really want to bring him up and hope that he starts to hit well, and can stay healthy, or do you want o keep Gift Ngoepe on the 40 man and bring him up, even though you know he is an offensive liability, he is a great defender, and typically is healthy. Also, when you place a player on the 40 man roster and don’t bring him up, you use one of his 3 option years, more often than not, that is not of any consequence, but if you add Meadows, and he is continually hurt(not likely), he could burn up all 3 option years before he ever had a chance to finish his development and hopefully be able to make an impact at the major league level. (Meadows was probably a very bad example in this scenario).

  5. Obviously, the 4 game sweep of the Brewers was desperately needed for this team to have any chance of winning the division or getting a wild card spot. Anything less would have minimal impact. The Pirates also owed the Brewers big time – so it was sweet revenge from that standpoint.

    Now, the drivers for keeping this team afloat all season and for the recent surge have been the young players – many of them from the Pirates system – guys like Bell, Frazier, Kuhl, Taillon, Diaz, and even Moroff have all made significant contributions. Guys like Harrison and Cutch have led the way.

    Although I am encouraged by where this team is as of today – and with Marte back (although I have mixed feelings about him now), this team has a shot – and it is because of their pitching. With the exception of Glasnow and Hudson being truly awful at times, and guys like Watson and Cole being up and down, this staff has kept this team alive all season. Taillon and Nova have been pretty consistent, and Rivero has just been lights out.

    I just hope NH doesn’t get carried away and repeat past mistakes and trade away prospects for either rentals or limited upside veterans. Stay the course….I’d like to see another arm in the bullpen, but we do have options in Indy – Santana and Neverauskas who may be as good as anything we can trade for. Glasnow has been outstanding in Indy since being sent down….I think he could be brought up in August and give the rotation another top shelf arm – I have not given up on him…he just needs to experience 1-2 good starts to regain his confidence.

  6. Nobody mentioned the Bucs are starting a long west coast road trip today. Anybody who’s been following this team recently knows what a disaster those can be. Let’s see how the next week+ pans out before we declare them contenders.

    • Very good point. The last couple of years the Bucs have lost a lot of games out west after the break.

    • I made that point on another forum. Winning streaks are usually followed by losing streaks. So we got Denver where they usually win only one game, or get swept, and then the left coast. Fans of a certain age like me can remember those nine game west coast swings where they come home 1-8 or 2-7

      • Hell they almost one a game against the Dodgers in May when the Bucs lineup (due to injuries as well as the Marte and Kang deals) featured a back up catcher and four guys whose career ceiling is “25th man”

  7. If I were going to make a trade for a rental, I would look at OFers and 3B, as well as BP. The reason I throw OF in there is because Marte cannot play in the post season if, and that a huge if, the Pirates make it there.

      • Please, please stop using the name Adam Frazier in reference to being better than a replacement level player. Heck, even at 275 lbs, Panda is probably the equivalent of Adam Frazier. As for Freeze, he has been replacement level or below since the first month of the season.

        As for who is available, I really don’t know.

  8. Pirates are not chasing the Brewers. Everyone is chasing the Cubs. Pirates need them to cool off. Brewers are coming back to reality a little bit.

  9. I know Huntington said “move in a more positive manner………..etc.” IF the Pirates swept Brewers. So Pirates swept ’em! What does it mean?

    Huntington is not going to go out and buy a rental player of the first magnitude as Milwaukee did a few years ago. That would be short term planning for the small market Pirates. But exactly what kind of player do you ( ALAN ) think they need? Relief Pitcher comes to my mind. What say you?

    • That guy isn’t out there right now. There are no CC Sabathia in their prime out there. I guess you could say Darvish but he isn’t on that level right now.

    • I think a controllable reliever would be high on the list. Maybe someone like Hand or Maurer from San Diego or Hector Neris in Philly. Gotta figure both Watson and Nicasio are gonna be traded or at least sign elsewhere for next season. Given the lack of need among contenders I would also dip my toes in the SS market and try to find a bargain to get a true backup SS so we can stop the carousel of AAA guys coming up who have the ability to handle short but it’s not really their main position (if they have a main position at all) and aren’t really good give much rest for Mercer. I’m thinking a Jose Iglesias or Freddy Galvis type player would significantly upgrade the 25th spot on the roster.

    • I think the most likely trades are 1) someone that they feel can start at 3B in 2018 and might help the team down the stretch, 2) an experienced reliever that’s under control for 2018, 3) a Nova-type SP that could push Kuhl and maybe provide future value

      • I’m a Bucco fan through and through. Would absolutely love it if you’re right. I just don’t want to get stuck in the middle again. Fangraphs playoff odds are less than 15%. Whether we admit it or not, we do have windows of contention and need to be absolutely sure whether we’re contenders so we don’t waste assets for the future. These half measures have not been cutting it in my opinion.

        • They just went 8-2 over their three rivals in division to climb back within striking distance of the division lead. They have a young team that is improving with experience. These are undeniable facts.

          Fangraphs puts an inordinate amount of weight on run differential to calculate their playoff odds. This may be the best way to predict future conclusions, but it is not infallible.

          Bottom line is NH would be foolish to pull the plug on the plan he has constructed when it is actually working.

      • A big longshot still, but still a decent chance. I’m hoping we get something for Watson and Freese, then upgrade 3rd base and add a reliever.

  10. “he struck out seven on the first eight Brewers he faced”

    Taillon recorded 7 of first 8 outs via strikeout, but since 3 reached base, it was 7 of first 11 batters faced.

  11. Love it! Keep it going.

    Trade deadline I would look for late inning RP and 3B or even 2B, move Harrison to the opposite.

      • That would be ironic, after essentially not getting anything for Walker, we end up giving up prospects to get him back.

        • Shame we released Bastardo. How funny would it have been to trade him to the Mets for Walker? In all seriousness though I don’t think I would want Walker back. He is oft injured and an impending FA. That is a big gamble to give something of value up for.

          • I’m more interested to see if the injury issues cause his price to drop enough to be in the Pirates’ range to try and go after him as a free agent after the season as opposed to trading for him. If a two year 14-16 million dollar deal works I’d be interested.

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