Weak division gives battling Bucs opportunity



Andrew McCutchen celebrates with Travis Snider after the team’s 4-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in May 2014. (Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

Don’t look now, but two months into the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are still hanging around in the National League Central.

Heading into May, the team was in last place in the division and looked like a longshot for the playoffs. Now, thanks to a modest turnaround and a lackluster division, the team’s playoff picture is looking a little brighter.

The Pirates have been a difficult team to understand this season. In April, they immediately took their place in the cellar of the division with a sluggish offensive start and inconsistent pitching.

Former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jordy Mercer were among starting position players to get off to a slow start, each hitting below .220 for the first two months of the season. The pitching staff wasn’t much better as starters Trevor Williams and Tyler Glasnow struggled to establish themselves, each posting earned run averages above 5.00.

On May 15, the Pirates looked destined to miss the playoffs again, sitting at 16-22, six games back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

The team has begun to turn around its play over the last few weeks, going 17-16 since then, and despite continued pitching lapses and slumps along the way, the Pirates have remained competitive.

But, if they can start playing to their potential, they can achieve much more than competitive baseball. In fact, they have kept pace with the division over the past month and are only four games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.

Over the past month, the Cardinals have fallen off and the Cubs have remained stagnant around .500. Milwaukee has managed to stay a few games over .500 to hold the division lead, and the Pirates have signaled they could potentially make a run.

First of all, the Pirates hitting has greatly improved over their dismal April numbers. In the past 30 days, seven regular position players are hitting over .300. The most notable among the group is McCutchen, who has hit .323 over the past month, raising his batting average from around .212 to .257.

With McCutchen, catcher Francisco Cervelli and second baseman Josh Harrison all currently hitting close to their career averages, the offense could be a force moving into the final stretch before the all-star break. Expecting these franchise players to continue to play well while others fluctuate is reasonable and would be enough to consistently produce on offense.

The back end of the pitching staff has also picked up their play, as Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl have each averaged more than one run under their season-average ERA in the past 30 days.

Yet, there are still problems in the rotation, with ace Gerrit Cole compiling a horrendous 8.20 ERA in the past month and rookie Tyler Glasnow still unable to prove he can compete in the MLB with an ERA over seven.

But even though these look like a mixed bag of results, they inspire hope.

Williams and Kuhl have improved enough to keep the Pirates in ballgames, and Cole has started to get his game under control in his last few starts. In June, Cole has compiled a 3-1 record and pitched arguably his best game of the season Sunday in a seven-inning, one-run outing.

With Williams, Kuhl, Cole and the ever-reliable Ivan Nova in the rotation, the only blemish that has remained is Glasnow. On June 12 though, Jameson Taillon returned to the lineup after missing time while being treated for testicular cancer. He filled the role of Glasnow and secured the final spot in the rotation, giving the Pirates a complete pitching lineup.

Combining this solid pitching staff with an offense on the rise will allow the Pirates to compete, and the poor play throughout the NLC will keep the door open for the Pirates to make a run at a division title.

Contrary to what analysts have said, the Chicago Cubs are past the point of a slow start. They are almost halfway through the season and sit two games above .500 at 36-34. A world series hangover may be an excuse for a poor first month, but as the calendar approaches July, their lackluster play might be the new norm.  

The Cardinals — another staple atop the division — currently sit at 32-37 and have been nothing short of erratic so far, going through multiple ups and downs in the first half of the year.

On May 10, the team tallied their 6th straight win to pull five games over .500 at 19-14. Over the course of the next month, the team slowly lost ground in the division through multiple losing streaks. They lost four in a row in the middle of May and went on a seven-game streak in June in back-to-back series against the Cubs and Reds.

The surprise of the division — the Brewers — have remained a solid team throughout this first part of the season to retain their division lead. They are the most consistent team in the division, but even so, they’ve also been remarkably average.

First baseman Eric Thames led the team to the top of the division, hitting .345 in April. But he’s fallen off ever since and his batting average is currently .260. The Brewers have stayed around .500 in June, maintaining their slim lead over the rest of the division.

As of now, the Brewers have a 1/2 game lead over Chicago while the Pirates and Cardinals are each four games back. If each of these teams continue their average play and the Pirates continue to build on their momentum, it’s easy to see the team making the playoffs. They have almost 100 games to battle their way back, but this plan all hinges on one thing — how close to their potential they can get.

This week, the Pirates have a good chance to prove their worth and start moving up in the division as they face off against Milwaukee and St. Louis in back-to-back series. So far they’re off to a good start, winning the first two in Milwaukee. If they can finish off the sweep and win the series against the Cardinals, it would be a huge boost going into July.