Don’t look back, but here come the Pittsburgh Pirates!
Most predicted that this home stand was the most important one for the current roster, and they performed like it against the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, taking six out of a possible seven games to not only enter the weekend with a record of 48-48, but also find themselves three games back of the Brewers for first place in the NL Central.
So we ask ourselves, how did this happen?
Andrew McCutchen had the second lowest batting average in the last seven games (.208) and Jameson Taillon had a couple of short starts. However, despite this both players played a part in the success along with some unsung heroes.
Regardless here is how the week played out for the Pirates from July 14-20, 2017.
Marte returns to a positive reaction
Outside of the absence of Jung Ho Kang, there is no bigger disappointment on the Pirates roster than Starling Marte. Marte earned himself an 80-game suspension this season due to a wellness violation and the Pirates were at a loss of who can be the starter in the outfield.
The Pirates faithful game him a warm welcome on Tuesday when he made his first plate appearance, appearing to forgive him of his error.
While the sampling size is limited this week, Marte immediately showcased his outfield range in the first inning in his return, making a sliding catch to cost Ryan Braun of a base hit.
Marte’s offense was no there and it makes sense because of his long absence from Major League-level pitching. The bad news was he only hit two singles in twelve at-bats and he did get caught in a pick-off. The good news was he was on base twice more (one for a walk and one on an error). He also scored both times helping the Pirates either tie or take the lead in the Brewers series.
Let’s give Marte a bit more time to develop. From press conferences he appeared apologetic and regretful. His big test will be going to the west away from PNC Park.
If he stays humble and ignores the boo birds, expect his offense to match up with his fielding in a couple weeks.
The bullpen was near flawless
Timely hitting will be written soon, but another big story that happened this week was the work of the entire Pirates bullpen. It appeared that Clint Hurdle could do no wrong and the All-Star break helped the taxed bullpen with needed rest. Even though the Pirates won six games, they did not overpower the Cardinals or Brewers with their hitting.
Chad Khul, Tallion and Trevor Williams had decent starts during the week. The problem was they did not make it past the sixth inning in their combined four starts. Other than Juan Nicasio’s two home runs allowed (his first ones allowed all season), no runs were scored on the other relievers.
Tony Watson looked like the pitcher we are used to seeing and Daniel Hudson finally arrived and shut down the Brewers when the Pirates needed important outs.
Felipe Rivero continued to be the nastiest pitcher in the majors, earning three saves and zero walks in four games. His ERA now is a 0.70. Yet he was not an all-star.
Wade LeBlanc was important in his two appearances. He pitched a perfect ninth and assisted in the Pirates scoring two runs to win against the Cardinals on Sunday. With a runner on second base yesterday, LeBlanc was able to strand an inherited runner in scoring position.
Give credit to A.J. Schugel and Jhan Marinez. If not for their effective (four no-hit innings combined) pitching in a 4-0 loss to the Cardinals on July 15 who knows what could have happened the rest of the week.
If someone can type out a better week for the Pirates bullpen this week, I’d like to know.
Gerrit Cole pitched like an ace
When Gerrit Cole was drafted by the Pirates he was penciled in as a future ace on the staff. Cole showed that potential in 2015, but has struggled with health last year and allowing home runs this year.
While Cole allowed one home run last week he was outstanding. He pitched 13 innings, allowed only 3 runs with 14 strikeouts and zero walks. The Pirates did not provide run support in both of his starts, but his starts helped spark late-inning magic for the Bucs.
The Catchers are the Real MVPs
One of the most underrated positions in baseball is the catcher. They are part of the baseball battery, getting the signals for the pitchers and trying to control the team when the game is tight. Luckily for the Pirates, they have two solid catchers in Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart.
The pitching was brilliant, but so were the signs the catchers were providing the staff. 18 runs allowed in seven games is a telling sign of how great the chemistry was between the battery.
Offensively I gave Cervelli high marks in three of his six games played and Stewart earned another. In his first start since early July, Stewart collected three “smart” singles and threw out Jonathan Villar in yesterday’s 4-2 victory to get the Pirates closer in the NL Central Race.
But Cervelli was the best player of the week and could be in the running for the NL Player of the Week with the way he played. He followed up a 5-RBI game against Chicago with 10 hits in his six games, averaging a .435 average while controlling Cole and the rest of the pitching staff. Cervelli’s hits were not cupcakes either. On July 16, his single in the ninth inning catapulted the Pirates to scoring two runs in one of many comeback wins. His sixth inning lead-off home run on July 18th sparked a four-run inning to help the Pirates comeback against the Brewers.
Cervelli’s batting average increased from .250 at the start of the week to .271 at the time of this writing. With a healthy and motivated Cervelli, the Pirates could make even more noise in the next couple of months.
McCutchen can finally relax
In June the only consistent bat came from Andrew McCutchen. And after six weeks of excellent baseball his average cooled off to .288. In the home stand he garnered only five singles, but got three timely RBIs and drew walks.
For the first time in a while, the team got better offense from other teammates.
Since dropping lower in the batting order, Gregory Polanco produced a .370 average during the week, highlighted by a 4-for-4 game on July 17 in which he scored 2 runs.
At the end of the Pirates 5-2 victory over the Cardinals on July 14, Josh Bell walked it off with a 3-run home run, increasing his overall total to 17.
Adam Frazier walked off with a Pirates win on July 16 with a RBI single while hitting .389 overall for the week. Expect Frazier to be more relaxed as a utility player now that Marte returned. In the same game, Jordy Mercer started the scoring with an RBI double.
Josh Harrison only hit one home run, but that one gave the Pirates a 4-3 lead on July 18 in a game that proved to be the winning run.
Finally, props to Max Moroff who battled through his career-starting slump to get an RBI single to help the Pirates win on July 19.
So this week prove that with proper timing McCutchen can have an average week and the players around him can provide clutch hitting.
Starting pitching was above average, but not great during the home stand. Cole was fantastic, but lack of run support is the reason why Cole had a couple no decisions. Fear not, the Pirates won both of his starts.
As mentioned before if not for the two scoreless innings each by Schugel and Marinez in the Pirates 4-0 loss to the Cardinals, I think the bullpen would have been exhausted all week. Those performances made for some easy decisions later in the week.
Josh Bell’s defense has a couple of holes, but I’d take him at first base everyday over the Pedro Alvarez experiment from a couple years ago. Bell looks like talented and can stretch plays. The only think that one can be critical on is technique. But he’s been improving.
John Jaso will not get as many opportunities, but credit him for going in the outfield and helping the team out during Marte’s suspension.
We can agree the home stand was a big boost in morale and support of the Pirates. However, the next few games before the trade deadline is as important. After the Rockies and days after the deadline the schedule involves a few games with the Padres, Giants and Reds.
The Pirates will need to continue to treat these like important games and perhaps a wild card is not out of the picture if the standings fall in favor of the Cubs. I still believe that they need to overtake the Cubs to win the division.
The Pirates are only three games back of Milwaukee, but the Cubs are on a winning streak and find themselves one game back. The Pirates will travel in the west coast for the next three series.
The Pirates will play the Colorado Rockies from July 21-23 and the San Francisco Giants from July 24-26. They will have an off day on July 27 before finalizing their road trip at San Diego. Although the rotation is not set for the Giants series it is reported that the Pirates will start Trevor Williams tonight, Khul tomorrow and Ivan Nova to wrap up their trip to Coors Field.