PITTSBURGH — I asked about a month ago if it was too early to adjust our expectations for the Pirates.
At that time, the team was 8-2 and opening a few eyes as to the potential of this year’s group. My contention was that a hot 10-game stretch was indeed enough to allow us to tack a couple of wins to the Pirates’ projected total, even if we thought their start was more fluke than anything.
Now, after the Pirates (25-17) have completed another eight-wins-in-10-games surge, they’re not only in first place; they’re also eight games over .500 for the first time in nearly two years.
FanGraphs’ projections still aren’t that impressed by all this winning. Even though the Pirates have stepped up, the Cubs are still FanGraphs’ favorites to take the National League Central with a record of 92-70. Taking current standings into account, the Cardinals (89-73) are projected to finish second and the Pirates (83-79) have moved themselves into third.
All of that adds up to the Pirates’ looking at a 29 percent chance to make the postseason for the fourth time in six years. Here’s the rest of it if you care to look:
What’s interesting is that I’d bet many of you have already done similar math in your heads. Are you convinced the Pirates will challenge for the playoffs? Maybe not, but I’d also estimate you’ve lifted your initial sights, regardless of whether you had this team winning 70 games, or 90, or somewhere in between.
What about inside that clubhouse, though?
Some Pirates simply shrug and take it in stride, like Trevor Williams did after getting back on track against the White Sox on Tuesday night. Williams is still relatively new to the majors and he’s never played for a winning team at this level, but he claimed this all feels normal.
“We’ve been playing well since we left spring training,” he said.
Josh Bell carried a little more awe in his voice when describing the performance of this lineup, especially.
To wit, the Pirates scored 208 runs in their first 41 games, their most prodigious output at that point of the season since the 1960 team. In the context of the NL, the Pirates rank second in batting average (.260), second in on-base percentage (.322), second in slugging (.431), second in wOBA (.328), second in wRC+ (107) and third in offensive fWAR (7.3).
“It’s huge stuff, and it’s happening,” Bell said. “It’s stuff that’s unheard of, for the most part, but we’re putting it together and we’re rolling with it.”
There must be something about the word ‘expected,’ though, because it seemed to connote entitlement more than confidence when I uttered it to a few Pirates.
Jordy Mercer, for example, chuckled when I asked him if the Pirates could expect to keep this level up for the duration of the summer.
“I don’t know if you expect it, because it’s a long season with ups and downs,” Mercer said, reclining at his locker prior to Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the MLB-worst White Sox. “But we’re playing well right now. That’s just the way it is. Everyone is confident. Everyone is feeding off each other. It’s kinda the way it’s going right now.”
I wrote about the cross-squad effects that good performance can have earlier today, a phenomenon Mercer turned back to when trying to describe the fluctuations of a 162-game season.
“This game is so crazy,” Mercer continued. “When everyone is playing well and feeding off each other, you try to keep it to last as long as you can. It’s not gonna stay like this forever. It’s just the way the game is. It’s ups and downs, but you need the even-flow type thing.”
(And here I thought Eddie Vedder was more of a Cubs fan.)
Mercer’s measured perspective comes from experience.
The 2016 Pirates rose as high as nine games over .500 on Memorial Day weekend before losing 22 of their next 31 games. Coincidentally, that team was also boosted by an outstanding offense before the pitching staff — and the starting rotation in particular — fell apart in June.
This year’s edition of the Bucs has more youth in the rotation, but perhaps just as many question marks. There doesn’t appear to be a Jon Niese hanging around, so that’s nice, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see multiple young starters fall into a slump at the same time.
Perhaps it was that memory that kept Clint Hurdle’s enthusiasm in check after a blowout win Tuesday night. Or it could be that experiencing fickle results over a lifetime in the game makes his stomach turn at the thought of looking too far forward.
“I think you’re losing sight of how hard it is to play this game up here when you (ask if) it’s expected,” Hurdle said, firing back at my postgame query.
The manager eventually settled on the word “satisfied” as the one that best describes his feelings on the eighth Pirates team he’s led. Then again, he pointed to Tuesday’s injuries to Francisco Cervelli and Starling Marte as another reason to bottle up any bubbling pride.
“We have the capability to do some good things,” Hurdle said. “We’ve connected the dots in this lineup in some different ways. At the same token, you have two players leave the game (Tuesday), so I don’t think there’s an opportunity to get big-chested.”
As for those of us who were a little more optimistic than most about this team’s chances to make for an interesting summer … maybe we can puff out those pectorals. For now.