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.”
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.”