The Pirates have had a pretty exciting stretch lately. They went 7-1 last week, including sweeping the Brewers in five games. They returned from the All-Star break last night with a big 12-1 win, pulling them back up to .500. And all of this comes at a time when Neal Huntington decides whether the team will be buyers or sellers at the deadline.

I don’t want to come here and throw cold water on the party. But I also can’t sit here and seriously discuss this team as a true contender right now.

They’re having a great stretch, and considering their next two games are against the Reds, there’s a good chance that will continue. They have a tough opponent against the Indians next week, but that is followed by four games at home against the Mets. So don’t be surprised if this team enters the deadline on July 31st — with a game against the Cubs no less — above .500.

But are they contenders?

A week ago I wrote about how they’re not really contenders even with their big week against the Brewers, and even if they won on Sunday. At the time they were 5.5 games back of the Wild Card, and with five teams between them and the second Wild Card spot.

Not much has changed since their two most recent wins. They’re still 5.5 games back from the second Wild Card spot, only now there are four teams ahead of them, with the Nationals half a game behind them.

Before their seven game winning streak, they were nine games back, with five teams ahead of them, and with the Nationals right ahead of them at five games back. So the result of their recent stretch has basically been that they jumped out of the Reds-Padres-Mets-Marlins group and into the group of teams with an outside shot at a Wild Card spot.

They’re likely going to need another impressive stretch of games where they hardly lose in order to get in place for a realistic shot at a Wild Card spot. Maybe that happens this week if they have a good performance against the Indians, and show up big against the Reds and Mets. If that happens, and if they’re able to leap frog some teams in the current Wild Card race, then it would be safe to call them contenders.

But I’m still taking a skeptical view, because we’re talking about a Wild Card spot here at best. As much ground as they need to make up right now for the Wild Card spot, they need to make up more ground for the division — currently 8.5 games back with two other teams between them and the Cubs.

When you look at the current division leaders, you see a group of teams in big markets with the ability to add big, and some teams who have already done so. The Dodgers just added Manny Machado, and have been linked to top relievers. The Cubs made a smaller move to add Jesse Chavez, and are still linked to other better relievers. The Phillies have also been looking at top relievers. That would probably be the biggest area the Pirates could improve in, and it would be difficult to compete in trades with teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Phillies, as they can trade top prospects much easier. Considering Brad Hand just went for a top 10 overall prospect, I’m not sure I’d want to find out how close to Mitch Keller a top reliever would cost the Pirates.

So here’s the situation: The Pirates have won nine of their last ten and seven in a row. That got them into the back of a group of teams fighting for the second Wild Card spot. They’re going to need another similar stretch to jump ahead of those teams and have a shot at one of those Wild Card spots. And even if they pull that off and win a Wild Card spot, then win the Wild Card game, they’ve got to get through two of the three powerhouse teams that are likely to add big at the deadline.

Are they contenders now? Not really.

Can they be contenders with another big week? Yes, but for a Wild Card spot.

And that’s the best case scenario right now. Following up an amazing week with hopes of another amazing week to get them into the conversation, then hoping to hold on and win a Wild Card spot, followed by hopes of winning that one game, which would then set them up as huge underdogs against the top team in the NL.

It has been a fun stretch for them lately, but it’s hard to take their chances of contending seriously at this point with that massive hill to climb, and another massive hill that starts once you reach the top.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 12-1 over the Reds on Friday night. Nick Kingham will get the start today, coming off of his last outing on July 13th when he allowed three runs over 6.1 innings and struck out nine batters against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Reds will counter with right-hander Anthony DeSclafani, who has a 5.32 ERA in 44 innings, with 35 strikeouts and a 1.27 WHIP. He faced the Pirates back on June 17th and allowed two runs over 5.2 innings.

The minor league schedule includes Taylor Hearn getting the start for Altoona, his second since getting the opening nod in the All-Star game. Indianapolis starter Tyler Eppler has allowed ten hits and no walks in each of his last two starts. West Virginia has a doubleheader today (weather permitting). Travis MacGregor has not allowed more than three earned runs in a start this season, and he’s been under three earned runs in all but one game. Ike Schlabach is scheduled for game two, but it looks unlikely that either game will be played unless the forecast changes drastically. Sixth round pick Michael Flynn threw four shutout innings on one hit and no walks in his last start for Morgantown. Oddy Nunez  goes for Bradenton and Colin Selby should be on the hill for Bristol.

MLB: Pittsburgh (49-49) @ Reds (43-54) 7:10 PM
Probable starter: Nick Kingham (4.26 ERA, 51:12 SO/BB, 50.2 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (51-45) @ Charlotte (46-52) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Tyler Eppler (3.21 ERA, 84:23 SO/BB, 101.0 IP)

AA: Altoona (51-44) @ Reading (45-52) 6:45 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Taylor Hearn (3.23 ERA, 96:35 SO/BB, 92.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (46-48) vs Daytona (52-43) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Oddy Nunez (4.47 ERA, 58:42 SO/BB, 94.2 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (50-42) @ Lexington (49-45) 5:05 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Travis MacGregor (2.59 ERA, 61:12 SO/BB, 48.2 IP) and TBD

Short-Season A: Morgantown (13-21) @ Williamsport (12-21) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Michael Flynn (7.71 ERA, 11:3 SO/BB, 11.2 IP)

Rookie: Bristol (12-16) vs Kingsport (15-12) 7:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Colin Selby (5.02 ERA, 12:4 SO/BB, 14.1 IP)

GCL: Pirates (11-14) vs Yankees East 10:00 AM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates1 (20-21) vs Dodgers Guerrero 10:30 AM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates2 (15-24) vs Colorado 10:30 AM (season preview)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Indianapolis, the fifth hit on Thursday night for Kevin Kramer. I’ll note that he slowed up like that because the ball went out of play for a ground rule double.

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

7/20: Sean Rodriguez activated from disabled list. Tanner Anderson optioned to Indianapolis.

7/19: Pirates release Johan De Jesus and Adonis Pichardo.

7/19: Chris Sharpe placed on West Virginia DL. Robbie Glendinning promoted from Morgantown.

7/16: Nick Burdi assigned to Bradenton on rehab.

7/16: Eric Wood placed on disabled list. Alfredo Reyes promoted to Indianapolis.

7/16: Pedro Vasquez placed on disabled list. Luis Escobar promoted to Altoona.

7/16: Jake Brentz activated from Bradenton disabled list.

7/16: Christopher Bostick assigned to GCL on rehab.

7/15: Pirates sign Alexander Mojica

7/15: Austin Meadows optioned to Indianapolis. Pirates recall Tanner Anderson

7/15: Clay Holmes optioned to Indianapolis

7/14: Austin Coley activated from Altoona disabled list.

7/14: Bo Schultz placed on Indianapolis disabled list. Jackson Williams activated from DL.

7/14: Pirates place Francisco Cervelli on DL. Recall Jacob Stallings and Clay Holmes.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Two former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus a trade of note. On this date in 2003, the Pirates traded away closer Mike Williams to the Philadelphia Phillies for minor league pitcher Frank Brooks. During that season, Williams was one of the worst All-Stars ever, making the team despite a 6.27 ERA. The Pirates only got 17.1 innings out of Brooks, but the trade was a win by default, as Williams was having a poor season and wasn’t worth his salary. The Phillies let him go via free agency after the season and he never pitched in the majors again, giving him the dubious honor of being selected for the All-Star team twice, making it in each of his last two season.

As for the two players born on this date, neither played a big role with the team, but one did have a very interesting nickname. Dick Smith, infielder for the 1951-55 Pirates, was signed out of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. He is the last of just three players from that school to make the majors. Smith played five seasons with the Pirates, but only got into 70 games and hit .134 in 186 at-bats. The Pirates were his only Major League team. He turns 91 today, making him the eighth oldest living former Pirates player.

Also born on this date, Irv Young, who pitched for the 1908 Pirates. Due strictly to his last name, he had the pressure of being named Cy the Second, as in the second Cy Young. Irv never came close to that potential and during the middle of the 1908 season, he was dealt to the Pirates for pitcher Harley Young. Harley wasn’t anywhere near as talented as Irv, but you may have already guessed that he was nicknamed “Cy the Third”. In his brief time with the Pirates, Irv Young had a 2.01 ERA in seven starts and nine relief appearances.

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