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Pirates continue struggles despite reasons for future optimism

The Pirates are losing steam and dropping winnable games.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates are fading fast from the success of late May and early June. This shouldn’t be too surprising, but rather expected.

When the Pirates swept the Los Angeles Dodgers on the road and returned home to take two of three from the Arizona Diamondbacks, hope was high for the 2022 Buccos to make a run towards some kind of reckoning to continually push the team forward.

Pittsburgh is 5-15 since.

The problem isn’t either who they played or how they played, but both.

Derek Shelton’s club lost nine in a row during the 20-game stretch, being swept by the now 28-44 Detroit Tigers in two games and the defending champion Atlanta Braves in four. Seven of the defeats were by exactly two runs.

Losing the first three of four in St. Louis followed by two of three from San Francisco, the Pirates displayed their current lack of ability against quality opponents.

The Pirates did take a series victory against the Chicago Cubs at home, below the Bucs in the NL Central standings, but that was to be expected or at least properly desired.

Pittsburgh played well against the Rays and was only strikes away from taking the first two games of the series, but neither fell the Bucs' way.

Sitting at 29-43 near the end of June, the Pirates are all in on their youth movement moving forward. There’s no other way to play.

Shelton deployed five rookies in the starting lineup Sunday, including starter Roansy Contreras, joining Jack Suwinski, Diego Castillo, Cal Mitchell, and Bligh Madris. Oneil Cruz received his first day off since being promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis.

With youth comes growing pains, and Pittsburgh is in its worst one yet of the season. David Bednar proceeding to walk consecutive batters, followed by a base hit to load the bags and another to walk it off, all with two outs, does not help in any way the dissatisfaction of losing.

Saturday’s game in particular is one ascending teams do not find a way to lose. The Pirates may have been ascending in the right direction, and still are, but the trajectory of the current club isn’t as rosy as a few weeks ago.

Granted the relevancy and stature of St. Louis, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay as four of the best teams in baseball and likely playoff teams, struggles against them all in a two-and-a-half-week stretch did not provide any favors.

With the trade deadline looming, all eyes turn to Ben Cherington and Bryan Reynolds as the two most impactful figures leading up to Aug. 2. Cherington could part with - when healthy - outfielders Ben Gamel and Jake Marisnick, reliever Chris Stratton, designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach, and starter Jose Quintana. Even David Bednar could be, but likely won’t be, an impact player dealt to a contender.

The Pirates will continue to have slumps and bad stretches as 2022 continues to roll along, but the negatives can turn back around as the ups and downs continue.

In retrospect, the team is -99 in run differential, worst in the National League in runs scored (263), 12-23 on the road, and 10-28 against teams over .500.

Suwinski does have 12 home runs and 22 RBI, but is hitting .211. Castillo is below the Mendoza Line at .192 despite seven long balls and 18 runs batted in. Michael Chavis was hitting .293 at the end of May, he's dropped to .249. They can still come up clutch when called upon, shown by all three this week. The issue becomes, and always has been with Pirates teams, consistency.

Watching Cruz, Suwinski, Contreras, Castillo, and others succeed in patches is promising for the future. It’s still not nearly enough. The Pirates must be better at situational baseball and in timely moments to be a legit contender at not the playoffs but just being respectable on the national landscape and hovering at a winning record.

More impactful players are still on the way from Double-A and Triple-A.

Think of this as phase two of rebuilding 101. Player acquisition over the past three years has guided the organization to a top-five farm system in baseball.

Advancing to the Majors and getting their feet wet against big-league opponents is helping the 12 rookies who have already made their MLB debut this season to know what to expect moving forward.

It is nearly impossible to win your division with one-third of the roster rookies, if not more, something the Pirates haven’t done since 1992.

Phase two in is full effect. Play the kids and experiment when necessary. I’m not overly optimistic but not pessimistic at the same time, just content with talent to build on. The obvious goal is to win games, but also handing the keys over requires the expectation of frequent turbulence.

The Pirates will beat inferior teams and lose most games to superior teams in the standings. That’s just who they are right now. All could change in the blink of an eye. Likely not. But that’s why they play the games.