The Pittsburgh Pirates are fighting, scratching and clawing for a National League playoff spot and it’s a wonder how they are doing it given all of the aches and pains afflicting key players.
Last year the Pirates finished above .500 and snatched a playoff position for the first time in a generation. Apparently they decided they liked it. It figured that the Pirates would only build on that when the 2014 season started. But then they got off to an inexplicable lousy start.
At the end of April, Pittsburgh was 10-16. At the end of May, Pittsburgh was 25-30. It took until June 24, 77 games into the season, before the Pirates moved one game above .500. Then they remembered they were no longer doormats and supposed to be one of the best teams in the NL and started playing like it.
Going into Thursday’s action Pittsburgh was 64-57 and in a surprisingly even, yet shaky-looking Central Division, was positioned for a run at the top. Lately, and most impressively, the good work has been accomplished without the player who is the heart and soul of the team. Andrew McCutchen was the 2013 NL Most Valuable Player. A little more than a week ago he suffered a rib injury when hit by a pitch.
The Pirates desperately convinced themselves that McCutchen would heal quickly and avoid going on the 15-day disabled list. After a week of wishing and hoping, though, reality intervened and he was officially sidelined. Yet the Pirates kept playing well.
This follows the team giving up on Jason Grilli after his excellent 2013 season and shipping him to the Angels. That represented a bit of upheaval, although Pittsburgh was prepared to make Mark Melancon the full-time closer, something that has turned out to be a superb move. But starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have not always been available.
Cole is expected to be a star of the future and he has been on the disabled list since July 5. Now throwing minor-league rehab starts he should be back for the stretch run, although Pittsburgh will baby him if necessary to ensure that he remains healthy. Liriano’s career has alternatively featured stardom and injury and that has been no different recently. In 2013 Liriano was a find, going 16-8. In 2014 he is 3-8 and missed some turns.
Also, Pirate second baseman Neil Walker has back problems. Some days he is a starter and some days he can’t stand up straight.
One of the saving graces of the season, despite all of these woes, is this year’s Liriano – Edinson Volquez. Once upon a time the right-handed pitcher was supposed to be a big cheese for the Cincinnati Reds, along with Milwaukee and St. Louis, the Pirates’ current biggest rivals for a playoff slot. Volquez went 17-8 for the Reds in 2008 and has never come close to equaling that win total. Over the next five seasons Volquez bounced from team to team and recorded some turn-your-eyes earned run averages such as 5.71 for the Reds and 6.01 for the San Diego Padres.
But this season Volquez has staged a one-man Dominican resurrection. He is 10-7 with a 3.67 ERA and he has rescued the Pittsburgh pitching staff while the others cope with their woes.
Whether the Pirates can make the run they need to secure a playoff place will still largely stem from what McCutchen does when he returns from the DL. He is the leader and the rest of the team is patchwork for now. A fully functioning, 2013 version of McCutchen over the season’s last six weeks could result in a Pirates division title.