Andrew McCutchen has cooled off at exactly the wrong time for Pittsburgh. (AP)
On the morning of July 26, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates were tied for first place in the National League Central. That night, they lost a 19-inning marathon in Atlanta on a blown call by home plate umpire Jerry Meals. That loss knocked the Pirates out of first place, after which the bottom fell out of their season. Pittsburgh lost 11 of its next 12 and went 19-43 from that 19 inning loss through the end of the season to finish in fourth place, 18 games below .500 and 24 games out of first place.
This year, the Pirates woke up on the morning of Aug. 19 with a half-game lead for the second NL wild-card spot. That night, they played a 19-inning marathon in St. Louis, and since then they have gone 5-15 and fallen 2 ½ games back in the wild-card race, causing many observers to experience déjà vu. The problem with that comparison is that the Pirates actually won their 19-inning affair, and their skid started 10 days earlier.
Those aren’t the only differences between the 2011 and 2012 Pirates, however. To begin with, last year's Pittsburgh team never did score many runs. Even when they went 16-11 in June, the Pirates averaged just 3.89 runs per game, and their best single-month performance saw them score a mere 4.15 runs per game in May. When they won, it was a combination of pitching (3.73 runs allowed per game from May through July) and luck (they were outscored by a run in June), and when they folded, it was because their pitching fell apart, allowing 5.39 runs per game over the season’s final two months.
This year’s Pirates, however, scored 5.21 runs per game in June and July combined, but over their last 31, during which they have gone 9-22, they have managed just four runs per game, while their pitching, which had held opponents to 3.59 runs per game over the first four months, has allowed 5.13 runs per game over those last 31. In that way, this year’s Pirates collapse is more complete, but it need not be as enduring.
Last year, when three-fifths of the Pirates’ starting rotation succumbed to injury down the stretch, the team lacked the ability to compensate. This year, though they have collapsed on both sides of the ball, their performance in the season’s middle two months has proven that they have the depth of talent to pull out of their current funk. The only significant injury the team has had to deal with during this period is the back pain that has sidelined second baseman Neil Walker for the past 14 games. Walker was indeed one of the lynchpins of Pittsburgh's mid-season success, hitting .323/.396/.537 in June and July, but his injury doesn’t explain why Andrew McCutchen’s bat has gone cold (.255/.351/.379 since Aug. 1), and both Garret Jones (.306/.380/.595 over the last 31 games) and Pedro Alvarez (.281/.374/.518), the other two cornerstones of their offensive surge, have continued to hit.
Similarly, while first-half Cy Young candidate James McDonald has been awful since the All-Star break, posting a 6.91 ERA while the Pirates have gone 3-8 in his starts, deadline addition Wandy Rodriguez has used his two innings of relief in that 19-inning game (he pitched the final two frames and got the win) and the extra rest that resulted (his scheduled start the next day was skipped) as a springboard. Rodriguez has posted a 2.05 ERA in his four starts since, all quality, but just two of them wins due to poor run and bullpen support. Elsewhere, two of the injured pieces of last year’s rotation, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens (the long gone Paul Maholm was the other), have made solid returns. Correia has delivered two quality starts since returning to the rotation as the replacement for the released Erik Bedard, and prior to injuring his hip in his last start, Karstens had gone 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 11 starts since returning from the disabled list in late June. Karstens reported no pain during a simulated game on Tuesday and could return to the rotation soon. The other good news from that simulated game was that Walker participated, took some swings, and hopes to return to the lineup by Friday.
With the two teams between them and the second wild-card spot both slumping as well (the Cardinals are 4-10 since August 28, the Dodgers are 7-13 since August 20, and both have just one win in their last six games), the Pirates are far from finished. As it is, they’ve already won as many games as last year’s team and have 21 left to play. If they just go 9-11 the rest of the way, they’ll avoid a losing record for the first time in twenty years, and if they can right their ship quickly, they could keep things interesting through the end of the month, as after tonight’s finale in Cincinnati, their next 14 games come against teams with inferior records. While they may only have a 3.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, per Clay Davenport's postseason odds, they still have an excellent chance to prove that despite the similar arc to their season, these are not last year’s Pittsburgh Pirates.
-- By Cliff Corcoran