Despite uneven play Pirates remain playoff relevant

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Despite uneven play Pirates remain playoff relevant

Andrew McCutchen reacts after striking out against the Miami Marlins in the sixth inning Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at PNC Park. (TNS)

Andrew McCutchen reacts after striking out against the Miami Marlins in the sixth inning Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at PNC Park. (TNS)


Andrew McCutchen reacts after striking out against the Miami Marlins in the sixth inning Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at PNC Park. (TNS)



Andrew McCutchen reacts after striking out against the Miami Marlins in the sixth inning Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at PNC Park. (TNS)

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

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Even with injuries, poor play and questionable decision making from the organization, the Pirates have somehow maintained mediocrity in 2016.

Despite their best efforts to end a three-year postseason streak, they may still be a playoff team.

In the first half of the season, the Pirates did a great job swinging bats but struggled with poor pitching from both the starters and relievers. The only exception on the pitching staff was star right-hander Gerrit Cole, who kept his ERA under 3.0, and on the offensive side, center fielder Andrew McCutchen –– who was slumping in almost every offensive statistic.

But as the calendar changed from July to August, the narrative completely changed with it.

McCutchen is now starting to play like a five-time All-Star again, and the team solidified its starting rotation with a boost from a wily veteran, a pair of rookies and one under-the-radar trade who has already paid dividends.

Just before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Pirates acquired right-hander Ivan Nova from the New York Yankees for a set of players the Pittsburgh club will name later. Three days later, 39-year-old Ryan Vogelsong returned from the 60-day disabled list to join the rotation of Cole, Nova and rookies Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl.

Four of the five starters in the rotation now boast an ERA of 3.50 or lower –– with the exception of Cole, whose ERA now sits at 3.55. The staff ace was placed on the 15-day disabled list with posterior elbow inflammation after going 0-3 with a 7.06 ERA in his last four starts.

Cole recently went to Los Angeles to visit an orthopedic surgeon after an MRI revealed no ligament damage.

“Right now, we’re taking it one day at a time with [Cole],” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We continue to have communication with him.”

Along with the Pirates’ elite offense, this revitalized rotation seemed to be exactly what the team needed to turn its season around. Instead, it’s the offense that has been holding the club back since the All-Star break.

Four key starters –– David Freese, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte –– are hitting well below .250 this month, helping to stall the offense. Meanwhile, McCutchen has begun to regain his MVP form by hitting .311 this month.

“Just taking what they give me .. that’s what it’s all about.” McCutchen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after driving in three runs on Thursday against the Milwaukee Brewers. “They want to give me a pitch away, I want to hit it over there … I’m a guy that hits the ball to all parts of the field. That’s starting to show a lot more.”

McCutchen might be starting to find his swing again, but that won’t do the team any good if the rest of the lineup can’t keep up.

Thanks to the team’s streaky play, the past two weeks have been a roller coaster for the Pirates and their fans.

First, the Pirates went on the road Aug. 12 to face the top two teams in the National League West: the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. The club won five out of six games in California and returned home on a four-game winning streak to face the Miami Marlins.

Holding a 5-3 lead in the eighth inning, the Pirates were unable to close out the series opener and fell, 6-5, in a thrilling 10-inning battle. The team then struggled to put any offense together in the next two games, getting swept at home and surpassed by Miami in the standings in the process.

After losing this playoff ground, the team proceeded to win five of its next seven games –– including the first four-game sweep in Milwaukee in franchise history –– to pull back within a half-game of the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card race on the back of strong pitching and inconsistent offensive outputs.

This Monday, the Pirates demonstrated their variability in a game for the ages against the Chicago Cubs –– who lead the division and had beaten the Pirates nine out of 12 times this season.

Chicago jumped out to an early three-run lead, but the Pirates responded with six runs off Cubs ace Jake Arrieta to go up 6-3. After the bullpen allowed the lead to evaporate to 6-5 in the eighth, the Pirates turned to closer Tony Watson to try to lock it down in the ninth.

Watson promptly served up a game-tying homer to Jorge Soler on a 1-2 fastball, sending the game to extra innings.

The teams traded three scoreless innings before the Pirates regained the lead on Josh Harrison’s sacrifice fly in the top of the 13th inning only to blow that lead –– and then the game –– on a walk-off single by Miguel Montero in the bottom of the 13th.

And still, after all these ebbs and flows, the club is only one-and-a-half games out of the playoffs as of Monday night.

If the Pirates can withstand the loss of Cole to the DL and extend one of their hot streaks to more than just a few games, they have a legitimate shot to make their fourth straight postseason trip.

After another devastating loss at the hands of the Cubs, though, yet another appearance in the win-or-go-home Wild Card game is the best they can realistically hope for.

Earlier this season, the pitching staff consistently let the offense down. Now, as the calendar slips into September and the season enters the home stretch, the Pirates’ lineup has to hold up their end of the bargain just to get the team back to the do-or-die game they know so well.

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