It feels like it was two seasons ago when the Pittsburgh Pirates were sitting at 44-45 at the MLB All-Star Break in early July, just 2.5 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs. The Bucs had just finished a 5-2 home stand against two divisional foes, and the overall outlook on the team was slightly skeptical, but curiously optimistic. Over the next month, the Pirates went 4-24, including a nine-game losing streak and an eight-game losing streak. A month into the second half, the Pirates dropped all the way to 48-69. The season was all but lost with six weeks left to play.
Pittsburgh finished off a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Sunday, bringing them to 12-8 since August 12th, and 8-2 over their last 10 contests. The rotation is pitching better, despite plenty of injuries, the offense is starting to wake up a bit, and the bullpen has been mostly effective, led by stud closer Felipe Vazquez and key contributors in Keone Kela and Richard Rodriguez. So, what happened during that month-long slump? How could a team with all the momentum in the world fall completely flat between July 12th and August 12th? And where would we be now if the Pirates could’ve just stayed afloat during that stretch?
Well, one obvious answer is that Josh Bell cooled down. After hitting 27 homers and driving in 84 runs in the first half, the first month of the second half of the season resulted in just two dingers and nine RBI while batting just .214 in that stretch. Kevin Newman cooled off too, hitting .248 with just two doubles and no homers in that span. Colin Moran, Adam Frazier, and Corey Dickerson were pretty quiet too for the month of July, and for a moment Starling Marte was the only source of power in the lineup. That’s how you collect two eight-game losing streaks in a month.
The pitching wasn’t disastrous, but it was pretty bad. The biggest issue was that the bullpen was inconsistent, and there were many complaints in the Twitter-sphere about Manager Clint Hurdle’s deployment of his ‘pen. Don’t you remember times in which the best pitcher on the team threw one inning in a week? Things are definitely better now, as Hurdle has seemed to grow comfortable with using Vazquez more in the eighth inning in tied or even losing contests. Whether that’s something he’s begun to understand or just an order from the top, we won’t know.
The part that upsets me as a fan the most isn’t that this season won’t end in a playoff run. Sure, that sucks. But instead it’s that the Pirates did what they seemingly always do... They wait until I let my guard down for just a brief second, thinking “Well, at least we’ll have some fun, meaningful baseball for most of the second half of the season,” and then they go and lose 24 of the next 28 games to make late August and September just about meaningless. The park empties out (as if it wasn’t already), you can hear it in the play-by-play and analysts’ voices, and you start getting really strange quotes from Hurdle and company. It’s just not a fun place, and the end of the summer is so much better with meaningful Pirates baseball.
The good news is that change is definitely needed in the coaching staff if not the entire front office, so a middling Wild Card race that ended in mid-September would’ve probably given everyone involved a false sense of positivity. There’s none of that now. With that being said, this September schedule is probably the easist part of the season, and having some rooting interest during these stretch of games would’ve been nice.
The way I see it, the first month of the second half was definitely a tough string of games, but the Bucs, especially with the momentum they carried into the break, should’ve been able to stay within five games of .500 during that span. So, let’s say they managed to go 12-16 instead of 4-24. Add that to the recent 12-8 stretch, and all of a sudden they’re at a .500 record in the second half. Not nearly enough to contend for the division (the Cardinals have been the hottest team in the league of late), but 68-69 is about five or six games back of a Wild Card spot, and we’re heading into the juicy part of the schedule with at least a little interest in what COULD happen.
Anyway, that’s just some food for thought. Again, I think in the big picture, that long losing month will do the franchise some good. Of course, that’s in the front office’s hands to actually make the necessary change, and good luck figuring out what will happen a month from now. But even if, deep down, we all knew this wasn’t going to be the year, a month like that makes you reconsider everything. Pitching will be a big question mark next season, no doubt, but I’m hopeful that under new watchful eyes, the Bucs can get back to finding value in players like Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and most importantly Chris Archer. This bullpen should be a strong point if nothing drastic happens over the winter, and man am I excited to watch this young offense play together again next year.
Drop your thoughts below and let me know what you think this year could have been if not for a historically bad month of baseball. Of course, in theory, we’d rather them lose like that then struggle to stay afloat at .500 just to miss the playoffs by four or five games in the end. But the forever young baseball fan in us always wants at least something to root for even if our logistical side knows it’s not going to happen. Interested to hear your thoughts. Let’s try to enjoy our last month of Pirates baseball! After all, we’ll miss it come January.