Last week at this time, I wrote that if the Pirates are still holding on to a playoff spot on the morning of August 20, they would be in pretty good shape to close out the magical season with a playoff berth. After today’s grueling 19 inning win over the Cardinals, they wrapped up those 7 games against L.A. and St. Louis at 3 wins and 4 losses, by winning 3 of the last 4. And despite trailing Cincinnati by 6.5 games in the NL Central, they lead the Giants by 1 game, the Cardinals by 2 games and D’Backs by 5 games for the second and final Wild Card, and are back to within 3 of the Braves for hosting that Wild Card game. Heck, the Pirates today won for the 67th time this season. They won 67 or few games in 5 of the past 7 seasons. And if they win tomorrow night, #68 will be as many of 6 of the last 7. The must finish only 14-27 to get to the now anti-climactic yet elusive .500 mark.
With 41 games remaining, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the remaining road for the Pirates, as well as the teams they are battling, in an effort to see what to expect over the final 7 weeks of the 2012 Major League Baseball season.
Pittsburgh is actually really close to a relatively easy stretch of baseball again, and appear to have survived a really tough August with an 8-10 record so far this month. The month closes out with 3 in San Diego, 4 against the Brewers (first 3 at home) and 3 at home against St. Louis. Not a bad stretch at all, and the Pirates should get back to .500 or better for the month. And then the schedule gets easy. As a matter of fact, from today forward, the Pirates play exactly 3 games on the road the rest of the entire season that have a winning record. Those 3 games, in Cincinnati, are the toughest stretch left this season. In fact, the Pirates play only 12 games total, home or away, against teams with a .500 record or better out of the remaining 41 games on the schedule. 6 against Cincinnati, those 3 at home against St. Louis, and three to close out the year at home against the Braves. The other 29 games they play all comes against sub-.500 teams playing out the string and taking a look at rookies for next year.
Cincinnati, of course, by playing in the NL Central, enjoys a lot of the same benefits that the Pirates do in terms of schedule. But they had that super soft schedule in July and August, when they stretched out their lead a bit. Now, the Reds come back to reality a little more, starting with 4 games on the road against an improving Philadephia team this week, followed by 3 against St. Louis and then 3 in the desert against Arizona. Then in September, they also get the Phillies for 3 more, the Dodgers for 3, the Marlins for 3, the Pirates for 6 before closing out their season at St. Louis. As a matter of fact, of the Reds remaining 40 games, they play 18 of 40 against .500 or better teams, with 9 of those games on the road. And of the teams they play with sub .500 records, 10 of those games are against Philadelphia and Miami, both of whom are decent and dangerous baseball teams – and 7 of those 10 are on the road for the Reds. The Reds play a total of 22 of their last 40 on the road. Will that be enough for the Pirates to catch Cincinnati for the NL Central crown? There is a pretty good chance, depending on how well the Pirates can take care of business on their own.
But if the Pirates don’t catch the Reds in the NL Central this year, how do the Wild Card competitors stand up as far as remaining schedules go?
Well, the Dodgers have a brutal schedule to finish the year. L.A. plays 25 of their final 40 games against teams that are .500 or better, with 11 of those games on the road. They have 9 games left against San Francisco and 6 left against Arizona, with September also bringing 4 against St. Louis and 3 on the road against both Washington and Cincinnati. They also have 3 against Miami mixed in there, which is one of the better teams with a losing record. The good news for the Dodgers is that they play 23 of those 40 at home, but still… that is a brutal stretch to close out the season.
San Francisco may have taken its biggest hit for the remainder of the season earlier this week when they lost probably their strongest offensive player in Melky Cabrera for a steroids suspension. The Giants’ next seven games will go a long way on determining if they are going to be able to keep it together to make a run or not. They travel to L.A. to play the Dodgers for 3 games, and then get the Braves in town for 4. Including those 7 games, the Giants play 22 of their final 41 games against teams with winning records, which includes 9 against the Dodgers and 9 against Arizona, as well as those 4 against Atlanta this week.
Arizona has been hanging around for a while, and while they have the most ground to make up, their path is a bit easier than their two NL West counterparts. The D’Backs play 18 of their remaining 40 games against teams with a winning record, 10 of those on the road. 9 of their remaining games are against San Francisco, 6 against the Dodgers and 3 against the Reds.
And that leaves Atlanta, the team currently leading the chase for home field advantage in that one game playoff race. The Braves kick off a tough 10 game road trip tomorrow with 3 at Washington, 4 in San Francisco, and then 3 in San Diego. After that stretch, things become significantly more easy for the Braves, facing plenty of Mets, Rockies, Brewers, and Phillies in September sandwiched around some games against Washington in there as well. In all, the Braves play only 13 games the rest of the way against teams .500 or better. The good news is that 10 of those 13 are on the road, with the final three in Pittsburgh to end the season.
So while the Braves shouldn’t be challenged much throughout the end of the season, their schedule is still challenging, especially compared to the Pirates. The Buccos have the softest schedule out of any of the contending teams from here on out, so there should be no excuses for not making the playoffs at this point. Some timely wins against the Reds and a little help along the way, and the Pirates will likely be challenging for the Central division crown during the last week of the season – and with 29 of the next 35 games against some really bad baseball teams, the Pirates must take care of business until those last six games of the year.
Apologies to Jim Mora, but with all of the excitement about the Pirates in 2012, it is important to look back a year ago at the similarities and differences between the 2011 team and the 2012 Buccos. While it definitely feels different this year, the Pirates were in first place on July 25 last year, whereas they were not in 1st place this year on that date or since. They do lead the Wild Card standings right now, and they have for a while – though the Braves tied them for the 1st wild card spot last night.
On this date last year, the Pirates had fallen from tied for first on July 25 to 4.5 games back of the Brewers on July 31, three games into what would be a 10 game losing streak while the Brewers won 7 in a row and 13 out of 14 to essentially bury the Buccos and wrap up the excitement for 2011. The Pirates were 7.5 games out of the 1 wild card spot available last year on this date, and would be 10.5 games back of the Brewers by August 10.
But this year, they have already survived a Reds 10 game winning streak and kept pace to remain within 3 games of Cincinnati. And right now, they have a 3 game lead over the Dodgers /Giants and a 4 game lead over the Cardinals. Further than that, the D-Backs are 6.5 games back. However, despite that lead, Baseball Prospectus still has the Pirates’ odds for making the playoffs at only 44%. This trails the Braves (84%), Dodgers / Giants (50%), and the Cardinals (59%). So do the Pirates just get disrespected because of their history? Or more likely because the pitching is showing signs that the wheels could fall off again like it did last year?
The Wandy Rodriguez deal helps with that. But Erik Bedard leads the majors in losses, Kevin Correia has been removed from the rotation because of concerns about performance, and even James McDonald has been downright bad since the All Star break. If A.J. Burnett continues to be an NL MVP candidate like he has been, Jeff Karstens stays consistently good and Wandy Rodriguez being what he’s always done, then we are set with three pretty good starting pitchers. If McDonald gets back to himself from before July, that is 4. This team has the pieces to hang around and get one of those 3 potential playoff spots they can earn.
So basically, they are in a ”new” division right now, that looks something like this.
‘Playoff’ Division: (3 our of 6 teams make the playoffs)
Reds ( – )
PIRATES ( – )
Braves ( – )
Dodgers / Giants (non-NL West Leader) ( 3 )
Cardinals ( 4 )
So, can the Pirates maintain the three game lead that they currently have over the next and last 60 games? Last year, after 102 games, the Buccos were 53-49. And then they went 19-41 the rest of the way en route to 90 losses. The good news is that with the head start that the team has in 2012, a similar and horrible collapse of 19-41 the rest of the way would still leave the Pirates 77-85. It would only take a 23-37 finish to hit the always elusive .500 mark.
The whole .500 thing should be a side note at this point. Not hitting .500 would be an epic collapse not worthy of any celebration, and who would have thought that to be the case at the beginning of the year? It is more interesting right now to note that it would take only a 32-28 record from here on out to hit 90 wins. And a 42-18 record, which is a .700 winning percentage (they are currently playing at a .569 clip) would get them to 100 wins. So maybe that would be shooting for the stars a bit much. But if the Pirates were to just continue their .569 clip from here on out, they would end the season at 92-70. That would not have been good enough to win any of the three NL divisions last year, but it would have been good enough to win the single wild card that was available. And if there were two wild cards available last year, then they would have hosted the Cardinals in the one game playoff with the winner then facing the Phillies in the NLDS.
So it isn’t asking a ton to think they can and should make the playoffs this year. Last year, the wild card was won with 90 wins, and the Braves were the first team out with 89 wins. So there is no room for a collapse of any sort, but it also won’t take anything special or above the norm to get in. Arizona, for example, needs to finish 38-21 to get to 90 wins, which is a .644 clip for a team currently playing .505 baseball. So if three out of the five teams including the Pirates, Reds, Cardinals, Braves and Dodgers make the playoffs, and we get a 3 game head start, we’re in a good place. But with a 4 game series in August at home against the Dodgers still to come, along with a 4 game home series against Arizona, 9 more games against the Reds (6 on the road), six against St. Louis (3 home, 3 away)and the final three games of the year at home against Atlanta, it could be a very exciting end to this season.
Sure, even for the most optimistic fan, it can be a little hard to read that title with a straight face. I admit, it would be an incredible and miraculous story if they were to somehow end the 19 year drought of even a .500 record by bringing home a world title. You hear all the time and everywhere the reasons why there is no chance in the world that this team could even make the playoffs, let alone with the whole ball of wax.
But on this off day, on a day when I finally find a wee bit of free time to write an article on my painfully neglected site, I am here to tell you why, in fact, this 2012 edition of your Pittsburgh Pirates will in fact shock the world and bring a World Series title back to Pittsburgh.
It’s June 11, and the Pirates are in first place. If you’re going to win the World Series, you first need to make the playoffs. Being in 1st place is one way to get there. Staying in 1st place is a better way. Sure, the Pirates were in 1st place much later than this last season. And that is one reason why they will be much more comfortable staying there this year.
The Pirates are 5 games over .500 right now. I’m not sure why Yahoo’s site shows them above the Reds right now, as pretty much every other standings page has the Reds on top due to their alphabetical superiority, but I’ll go with the Yahoo standings.
Being five games over .500 on June 12 guarantees them nothing other than losing no more than 130 games this year. But being 5 games over, with a realistic chance of being somewhere around 10 games over .500 by the end of the month is a very good start. Somewhere around 44-33 at the end of June is a realistic record, considering this team is on a 12-3 tear over the last couple of weeks. That finish would only be 12-6 to finish the month, and you have three against a bad Twins team in there to go along with 4 against a beat up Phillies team, and a series with the Tigers that looks like it will miss Justin Verlander. Also in there are the next six against surprisingly good teams Baltimore and Cleveland, and a couple against slumping and injured St. Louis at the end of the month. 12 more wins in June is absolutely possible.
A 44-33 record gets people to stop talking about 19 years of sub-.500 records and gets them instead wondering how good this Pirates team is. And the answer to that question begins and ends with its pitching staff. The Pirates have the #3 ranked ERA in all of baseball right now, behind only Washington and the Dodgers. The team WHIP is tied for 6th in the Majors. The home ERA is the best in all of baseball. And the home WHIP trails only the Dodgers by a 1.09 to 1.10 count.
The Pirates have the 4th best ERA in innings 1-6, at 3.41. And in innings 7 and beyond, it’s even better… 2.93.
Sure, offensively there have been troubles. We have the 2nd worst batting average in all of baseball. We trail the Padres by 14 runs to escape last in baseball in runs scored. We need to get 20 more hits than the A’s in order to escape the cellar in that category. But we’ve hit more doubles than the Rays, more Home Runs than the Dodgers, and more triples than a majority of the teams in baseball. Our on base percentage is by far the worst in baseball as well. And despite what seems like a speedy team, we are in the bottom quarter of the league in steals.
But the Pirates are in first place, even with all of that. And if they are 44-33, you can bet that there may be a move or two that infuses some offensive firepower into this team again this year. Last year, Derrek Lee came in and brought some much needed pop, but broke his hand and missed key time last year. Ryan Ludwick was brought in to do the same. Who knows what kind of move could be coming this year, but if a Jed Lowrie came over to play short or a guy like Alfonso Soriano was brought in as an outfielder, this team will score more runs. And with the pitching depth that is on this team, the 2012 Pirates can contend with anyone in this division through October.
So the Pirates shock the world and win the NL Central this year, hitting around 90 wins. With the wild card the way it is now, the Dodgers would likely be the #1 seed in the NL and get to play the winner of a one game playoff between teams like the Giants and Reds, or maybe the Marlins or Nationals. That leaves the Pirates to play the winner of the NL East in the opening round of the playoffs. The East is very good this year, and the Nationals appear to be tops in that division right now. Forgive me for holding a grudge, but I’d personally love for the Braves to win the division and be the Buccos first playoff opponent in 19 years. Maybe Sid Bream can even throw out the first pitch for the Braves. It would be a great storyline. But I think it would either be the Marlins or Nationals that end up winning that division. Game 1 in PNC Park would feature Strasburg against A.J. Burnett. Strasburg strikes out the first 15 Pirates that come up to bat, but the Buccos don’t give up many runs either, and steal a late win against the Nats with a run in the bottom of the 9th. Then the Pirates get a win again Gio Gonzalez and go up 2-0 with a pair of 1 run wins. Then they go back to DC and beat Edwin Jackson, personally ending his one year contract with the Nationals.
Then the Pirates get the Dodgers in the NLCS, where a hobbled Matt Kemp limps out to pinch hit against Joel Hanrahan in the 9th inning, bringing back memories of Gibson vs. the Eck. But the Hammer drops on Kemp this time, he reinjures the hammy and the Bucs go on to beat the Dodgers in 5 games due to more dominating pitching performances.
And in sweet justice, when every non-Yankee fan in America falls in love with the new sweetheart, David shocks Goliath as the Buccos beat the Yankees in the World Series. Though the Pirates win the title, the Yankees would have the World Series MVP on their payroll. Hollywood couldn’t write a better script than that. Though I just did. And it very well could happen. Just watch, and enjoy the ride.
Let’s Go Bucs!