We have all seen the cartoons in which Yosemite Sam, Wile E Coyote, Sylvester The Cat, and so forth, find themselves in mid-air, blissfully walking along -- until they look down.
Going into the second month of the season with what feels like a big series against St Louis, the Pirates are in that happy place of being better than advertised. If anything, they are plagued by What Ifs: What if Ke'Bryan Hayes hadn't gotten hurt? What if the Pirates had just played better against Cincinnati? What if they had a full starting rotation?
Of course, by the end of the weekend, this season could collapse like a souffle. As a rule, the Pirates do not perform well against the Cardinals, even in several recent years when the Cards had a lack of foot speed, remarkably bad defense, and a pitching staff best described as "vulnerable." The Pirates won't face the dreaded Capsaicin Twins, as Yadier Molina, who caught Cy Young's rookie season, and Adam Wainwright, who still remembers pitching against Ty Cobb, won't be making the trip to Pittsburgh. Apparently Molina is "having trouble moving around" -- no one knows what this looks like -- and Wainwright has been exposed to Covid. As they remain, all kidding aside, two of the best St Louis has not named Goldschmidt or Arenado, the Pirates have an opportunity to live off the land for a while longer and amaze, or amuse, everyone, themselves included, by pulling into second place and going day-to-day until someone overtakes them.
It may also be that there is little to joke about. Every now and then, when teams start to think they can win, and sustain that belief, they play better. They maximize their capabilities. This happens in every sport; sometimes on a game-to-game basis, and sometimes over all, or most, of a season. Sometimes it lasts longer than a season. Equally, teams that don't expect to win seldom do; they need the other team to lose. (Sometimes that lasts even longer too, as it has in Pittsburgh.)
So far in 2021, the Pirates have been, as noted above, not bad. Simply put, the longer they expect to win, and play like it, the more like the Cardinals they will be, and the longer this is true, the longer they can stay in contention. However much of that happens this season -- and a month of it is about 25 days more than I'd expected this year -- the further along the Pirates will be toward building this team into whatever it is to become.
Look at the Cardinals over the last fifteen or twenty years. They are usually a contender, and without question have had some strong teams. But they have also won with the likes of Jhonny Peralta, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, Tommy Pham, and Jon Jay, and they did it because they did whatever it took to win on any given day. Their talent level has not been high every year. Their fundamentals have at times been atrocious. But they showed up for every game, they got the big hit when it was needed, they made the play in the field when they had to, and they made the other team beat them.
Does anyone really believe they were better on paper than the Pirates in 2015? Not in the least. But St Louis won the division because they had made up their minds to do it. They didn't try to win. They didn't hope to win. They simply did it, over 162 games.
No one expects the Pirates to do anything like that now, but this series is a good test just the same. Even without Molina and Wainwright, the Cardinals are on a business trip, and they'll show up for this series. If the Pirates can do the same without going into a funk for three weeks afterwards, it will go a long way toward determining what the remaining months of this season will look like.
Just one thing: Don't look down.