PITTSBURGH - The MVP was back. The sun was shining, the Allegheny was sparkling, the party along Federal Street rocking. What slump? The Pirates entered Tuesday night’s game against Atlanta on a six-game losing streak that was threatening to derail their season, but you wouldn’t know it with the energy pulsing through PNC Park just before Pittsburgh’s game against the Braves. Blind optimism, perhaps.
Andrew McCutchen, activated off the 15-day DL two weeks after he was sidelined with a fractured rib, returned to the Pirates lineup on Tuesday, but the Braves' Justin Upton ripped his 24th home run of the year off Francisco Liriano to break things open early, Evan Gattis hit a ball so hard out of the ballpark it could have landed in Williamsport, Aaron Harang allowed just three runs over 8 1/3 efficient innings and the Braves spoiled McCutchen’s return as they pummeled the Pirates 11-3. "Cutch" was back, but the Pirates still lost their seventh straight game.
“There are tipping points and you look for one good at-bat, and one good swing at a certain time, with a couple men on base, and it can change the direction of the game, and we haven’t been able to get that in, really, the last week,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after the game.
The A’s have lost five in a row. The Tigers are slumping. The Blue Jays, now nine games back in the AL East after their loss to Milwaukee, are fading fast. No team, though, is struggling more than Pittsburgh. And no team faces a more critical week, their season hanging in the balance. On August 12, Pittsburgh was 64-55, in second place in the division, just 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers. After their seventh straight loss, the Pirates are now just two games over .500 and seven games behind Milwaukee, which has won five in a row. They’re now 2 1/2 games behind the Giants for the second wild card spot.
Tuesday was a reminder that the Pirates need a lot more than their MVP back in the lineup to make a run over the season’s final stretch and advance to the postseason for a second straight year. They need better pitching from Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke, they need Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez — both mired in bad slumps and given the day off on Tuesday — to turn things around at the plate. And they can’t afford nights like this from Liriano, who gave up nine runs and saw his ERA rise from 3.78 to 4.18.
Albeit a minor consolation, McCutchen looked healthy, despite an 0-for-4 night. The Pittsburgh crowd rose when he stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat in the first, cheered and then chanted “M-V-P.” McCutchen struck out in the first, lined out to right in the fourth, grounded out to third in the sixth and grounded into a double play to end the eighth.
“I felt fine,” McCutchen said after the game. “Get this first game out of the way, and move on tomorrow.”
Asked about the team slump, he said, “Get it out of the way now. As bad as we are going, we’re still in the hunt. Time to pick it up and get that second wind.”
With 36 games remaining on their schedule, the Pirates best be finding that second life soon.
“This is all about the beauty and the challenge of a 162-game season ... it’s up to us to get it turned back around,” Hurdle said.
Asked if the team’s funk was simply part of the ebb and flow of the game over a long season, Hurdle said, drawing on one of his favorite lines, “Feelings aren’t facts. A lot of people go with feeling and get emotional — I look at the facts. Every game you break down: did you meet the demands of the game on the mound, did you meet them offensively, did you meet them defensively? It isn’t one thing you can put your finger on ... we just haven’t played a complete game.”
Indeed, the Pirates didn’t do anything right on Tuesday. This is an important stretch for Pittsburgh, and it’s off to a terrible start. The good news? Tomorrow the Pirates get Gerrit Cole back in the rotation. All's not lost yet, but with a pivotal three-game series in Milwaukee looming at the end of this week, time is clearly running out.