Clint Hurdle was asked during the most recent homestand about the weird opening several weeks of the 2018 schedule.
Just four of the Pirates’ first 15 series feature National League Central opponents, making it difficult to get a gauge on where this team stands against its chief rivals to this point.
(OK, I lied. We know the Pirates are better than the Reds, but the rest of this thing looks completely up for grabs, with four teams within 1 1/2 games of the NL Central lead entering Thursday’s play.)
Anyway, back to the manager.
“I don’t get caught up in it being good or bad or late or early,” Hurdle said of those elusive Central games. “You know they’re coming.”
It’s the only division in baseball with four teams above the .500 mark, with the first-place Brewers next on the Pirates’ docket after this unsightly series in Washington concludes. Considering the way this week has gone, the Pirates are probably fortunate to have a chance snatch the top spot away this weekend in Milwaukee, but that’s where the sweep of the Cardinals last weekend looms so significant.
Actually, in a departure from the past few seasons, the Pirates are doing their best work against the Central, going a combined 8-2 against the Reds, Cubs and Cardinals so far. They’ve been absolutely dragged by the Phillies and Nationals, but all things aren’t equal in a league with divisions.
If you’re going to excel only part of the time, make it against the teams you’re directly battling for a guaranteed postseason berth. And despite the paucity of divisional series so far, once the Pirates get to Wisconsin, they’ll have completed one lap around the Central circuit.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them,” Hurdle said of the Brewers. “They’re playing pretty good baseball.”
No disputing that, but with Eric Thames on the disabled list and both Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw nursing minor injuries, the Brewers’ bats are unlikely to be as potent this weekend as they could be.
Also on the optimistic side of things, Nick Kingham will have a chance to follow up his near-perfect Pirates debut on Friday. He’s scheduled to oppose the red-hot Junior Guerra, but that seems to be a chance to flush the feeling of a couple of blowout losses in D.C.
Overall, this weekend will be a little more amplified because there won’t be another chance to gain ground against Central teams for another couple of weeks. Oddly, the Pirates will play the White Sox in two separate series before they see another rival in the Reds on May 22. It’ll be until May 25 before the Pirates again play a Central team (St. Louis) with an actual chance of contending this year. After that, the Cubs come to town for Memorial Day, so the schedule will naturally turn the other way, with seven of nine series against the Central.
And since there’s no guarantee the Pirates will continue to win these higher-leverage matchups, so maybe they’d rather face alternate competition if they still need to figure out some things, like a lineup that’s currently being carried by Corey Dickerson and Francisco Cervelli, or a starting rotation that hasn’t had anyone besides Trevor Williams step to the forefront.
In the end, these are all things for us on the outside to worry about. An early-May series against the Nationals might not be quite as significant as a late-April series against the Cardinals or an early-May trip to Milwaukee, but it probably doesn’t feel like that in that clubhouse.
And, hey, if we’re talking trends, the Pirates have crammed a five-game losing streak, a five-game winning streak and a three-game losing streak all in the span of two weeks.
“The numbers will tell you that’s what we are the last three series,” Hurdle told reporters after Wednesday night’s loss. “So there you go.”
Add all the ups and downs together, and the Pirates are still at least marginally ahead of where most of us thought they would be at this point. The early success against the Central has been one of the most surprising aspects, with the added benefit of throwing a streaky team a lifeline.
If the pendulum starts to swing back? They’ll cross that bridge when they get to it.