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Highs and lows of expectations for the Pirates

The Pirates are 2-12 since sweeping a slit doubleheader against the Washington Nationals. Pittsburgh began the year 20-8.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Baltimore Orioles Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

To truly categorize the Pittsburgh Pirates through 41 games involves peeking through the looking glass of just over a month ago.

Entering the 2023 season losers of over 100 games in back-to-back years, a new group of Pirates looked to carve their own story into the MLB history books. April began with a bang. A 20-8 start. First place in the National League. The second-best record in baseball … then the air was let out of the Buccos’ sails.

The Pirates are 2-12 since routing Washington in a doubleheader sweep, outscoring the Nationals 22-4. They were swept by one of the best starting teams in recent memory (Tampa Bay Rays) and the Toronto Blue Jays, lost two of three to a Rockies team the Bucs destroyed in Colorado and scored 14 runs against twice, and fell in the first two of three to the Baltimore Orioles.

Time to take a breath. Or seven. Pittsburgh is doing the opposite of what it did well in the season’s first 28 games that has now plagued the Bucs in the last 14. Hitting with runners in scoring position, playing consistently and solid defensively, moving runners over, being disciplined on the bases, and pitchers stranding runners became an anomaly for the slumping Pirates.

For reference, the Pirates scored more than three runs in a game for the first time since the end of April. Ji Hwan Bae, one of the fastest players in baseball, has been thrown out three times and two of the previous three games trying to steal second or third. The Pirates have run into outs looking to extend singles to doubles, move first to third, or risk a bang-bang play at the plate.

Most of the little things Derek Shelton’s club did significantly well, backed by double-digit quality starts, are on the back burner and critical to even partially return.

In reality, it’s necessary to consider where the Pirates were in mid-April. A buzz was in the air throughout Bradenton that the Pirates could become something. Not a playoff team capable of going deep in the postseason, but a club on the rise willing to show it is close to belonging again.

Some, like Vegas, initially predicted around 66-68 or 70 wins. I found myself what was considered to be a bit optimistic at 75-76 victories. Anything over that would constitute a 15-win improvement from the previous campaign.

The Pirates are still trying to establish a consistent way to win. But the realization of what the 2023 Pirates are remains a mystery. The club has flipped from a team riding the highest of highs off of new contracts for Shelton and Bryan Reynolds to the lowest of lows and nearing the .500 mark.

It’s important to remember where the Pirates were targeted to be at this point. Many considered the 2023 campaign to rival 2011. I drew comparisons to 2012 more than the previous year, where the bottom fell out after a successful few months. Regardless, the Pirates are already exceeding expectations. If they play .500 ball the rest of the year, the Bucs are a borderline playoff team. There’s little proof to believe that’s a real possibility, yet the marathon is far from over. It’s no excuse for a 1-11 stretch by any imagination despite slumps being a consistent reality over 162. It shouldn’t be surprising that the team is fluctuating between thrilling wins and extremely poor situational success. The Pirates are a team situated in the middle.

On a scale of concern, panic, or doom… the Pirates are in between concern and panic but close to the concerned end. If Pittsburgh falls under .500 in the next week or two and Endy Rodriguez or Henry Davis is not playing at PNC Park, then panic should truly set in.