Last year's underdog has returned to the postseason with an even more dangerous lineup and rotation, and with real title hopes.
SI.com is previewing all 10 playoff teams as they begin their chase for a World Series title. You can find each team's individual capsule here.
Regular-Season Record/Finish: 88-74, first in NL Wild Card
How They Got Here: Everything changed with one wild pitch in August.
On Aug. 19 at PNC Park, Francisco Liriano was rocked for nine runs in four innings by the Braves in an ugly 11-3 loss that sent Pittsburgh to its seventh straight defeat; when the night was over, the Pirates were 64-62, seven games back in the NL Central and 4 1/2 behind in the wild-card standings. The following night against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, unable to catch a break during its losing streak, entered the bottom of the eighth down 2-0, when its luck — and its season — turned around completely. Braves starter Alex Wood issued a walk to Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider doubled and Chris Stewart brought Sanchez home with an RBI groundout. Jordan Walden then threw a wild pitch that allowed Snider to score the tying run. Pittsburgh won the game in the ninth and has been one of the hottest teams in baseball ever since.
It may seem like a miracle that the Pirates are here. Their rotation features castoffs like Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez, they failed to make a move at the trade deadline when they had glaring holes to fill, and they lost Andrew McCutchen for a critical stretch as their season seemed to hang in the balance. Yet they managed to advance to the postseason for the second straight year. Now, Pittsburgh is the team that no one wants to face in October.
Why They'll Win: The Pirates are peaking. They went 17-9 in September, the second-best record in the NL behind the Nationals, and the most wins they've had in that month since 1996. Though they fell two games short of their first division title since 1992, their starters were excellent down the stretch. Liriano put up a 1.16 ERA in five September starts; Gerrit Cole finished the year with five straight quality outings; Volquez posted back-to-back scoreless starts; and Worley had a 2.25 ERA in September. Meanwhile, the bullpen has been lights out, as Mark Melancon allowed just four runs after the All-Star break, and Tony Watson finished with a 1.63 ERA.
What gets overlooked is just how dangerous Pittsburgh is offensively. It ended the regular season second in the NL in on-base percentage and slugging, third in home runs and fourth in scoring. It all starts with the baddest dude in the league, McCutchen. He is still not fully recovered from the rib injury that sidelined him for two weeks in August, but he is still the best position player in the NL. In fact, McCutchen — who led the NL in OPS (.953) and OBP (.410) — is arguably having a better season than he did a year ago when he won the league's MVP award.
There’s also plenty of firepower behind Cutch. Josh Harrison, whose All-Star selection was ridiculed by many, has been even better in the second half (.337/.364/.536), and Starling Marte (.350/.411/.574 in the second half) has carried the Pirates' offense for stretches in August and September. Last year's Pittsburgh team, which was one win away from reaching the NLCS, was all about pitching and defense and McCutchen; this year's club is more well-rounded and more dangerous, a legitimate World Series contender.
Why They Won't: Despite having already clinched a postseason berth, and despite not having its fate in its own hands, the Pirates opted to start Cole in Game 162 on Sunday to give themselves a chance to play a division tiebreaker on Monday. Instead, the Pirates lost to the Reds and had to settle for the Wild-Card Game, leaving Volquez as their best option to start that one-game playoff against the Giants in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are 51-30 at home, the best such record in the majors, and Volquez has been lights out recently, going 5-0 with a 1.46 ERA since Aug. 7. But he's also inconsistent — he was just 9-7 with a 3.91 ERA before that — and has a thin and unimpressive postseason resume. Volquez was also hit hard in his only postseason start back in 2010, failing to make it out of the second inning. Should they advance to the Division Series, Worley, too, has not fared well in October, putting up a 6.75 ERA in two relief appearances for the Phillies in 2011.
Meanwhile, the injury to Russell Martin, who was shut down over the weekend with a sore hamstring, is a potential killer. Forget his .290 average and 11 home runs — he's widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, a master pitch framer who has thrown out 28 percent of runners attempting to steal on him. Martin, in short, is the team's most important player not named Andrew McCutchen.
The Pirates' 37-44 road record was the worst among the 10 playoff teams. They’ll have to win some big games away from PNC Park — which they were unable to do last year, dropping Game 5 of the NLDS in St. Louis — if they are to win the franchise's first World Series title since 1979.