That's what I told myself when the Padres took their 4-0 lead in the first inning today. As I wrote earlier today, the Pirates are playing badly. I'm trying to take the long view of the season here, but they're not making it super-easy. A sweep to the Padres with Ross Ohlendorf on the mound? That'd be tough to stomach, wild card lead or no.
I was driving around town early this afternoon while Erik Bedard struggled and the defense melted down behind him, telling myself that if someone got on base for Pedro Alvarez or Andrew McCutchen or Neil Walker that maybe something good would happen. I was hoping for one of those signature moments, when a team's key player gets a huge hit when they need it the most and as fans we can sit back and say, "Maybe this really IS happening." If only things were so easy.
It was one thing to re-assure myself during the marathon first; I was in my car driving around town, listening to Erik Bedard labor and his defense break down behind him. I got home just in time for the top of the second, with Logan Forsythe already standing on second and Chase Headley at the plate. Headley hit a little spinner down the first base line that looked like a certain foul ball, only to have it hop back into fair territory almost halfway down the baseline. Mike McKenry was forced to make a lunging, shuffling throw to Gaby Sanchez at first, while Forsythe recognized the extra time given to him by the spinning ball and barely slowed down at third. Pedro Alvarez was caught flat-footed and never had a chance (Bob Walk was adamant that Pedro should've been covering and he's right, but to be honest the way the ball started foul and took forever to hop down the line with Pedro starting deep in the hole probably meant that he wouldn't have beaten Forsythe to the plate).
Two innings, bad defense, bad luck, laboring Bedard, and a five-run deficit. Not exactly how I had things drawn up in my mind when I wrote my big "Don't Panic" post this morning.
When Neil Walker singled in a run in the third, I figured that was a good sign. Chip away. It was obviously going to take more than one swing to erase the deficit the Padres had built, but every rally starts with one run in the same way that every hot streak starts with one win. Ohlendorf was clearly flagging in the fourth; the Pirates' broadcasters could see it and as someone that watched plenty of Ross Ohlendorf, I could see it too.
The Pirates loaded the bases in the fourth inning. Mike McKenry stepped up to the plate. 5-1 Padres. McKenry, the guy that always seems to comes through with big hits, down by four with the bases loaded and no outs. He drew a walk. Clint Barmes came up, fell behind in the count with a struggling Ohlendorf on the mound, and hit a grand slam. Not McCutchen or Alvarez or Walker. Not Jones, not McKenry, not even Marte or Snider. Clint Barmes, who's gone basically 0-for-2012, who's hit countless balls that have died in deep left-center at PNC Park, came up and wrapped a ball around the left-field foul pole.
The Pirates kept rallying, taking the score from 6-5 to 10-5. Suddenly, the Padres were the team misplaying balls in the outfield and making bad throws in and looking hopeless. When it was all said and done, somehow Erik Bedard ended up with a win and Neil Walker had five hits (he added a solo homer later in the game) and Andrew McCutchen had two hits after being previously hitless in the series and Garrett Jones had a kind-of triple (Cameron Maybin misplayed the ball badly) and CLINT BARMES HIT A GRAND SLAM.
Everything about this series was difficult to watch for the first 21 innings, but it's pretty hard to be mopey after a nine run inning. The Reds won today, but the Cardinals lost and so even after everything that happened this weekend, the Pirates go into their four-game series against the Dodgers with a 2 1/2 game lead on both them and the Cardinals for the final wild card spot. The Pirates' next seven games are against the Dodgers and Cardinals. The Pirates were in a funk this weekend; hopefully they woke up out of it in the fourth inning today, because this week is even more important than the Reds' series was.
The Pirates played like crap again last night. They got shut-out by Jason Marquis. They didn't get a hit until the seventh inning. AJ Burnett didn't have his best stuff and he gave up some home runs and got hit pretty hard. They lost 5-0, which was their second straight loss to the Padres and their third straight loss in a row.
People are FREAKING OUT about this as a result, if the online reaction to last night's game is any indication of what the general fan base thinks. This really wears me out. The Pirates haven't been playing very well lately; this is true. The bats have cooled off and Andrew McCutchen looks like something other than a superhuman and he's not getting as much help as he did before the All-Star break. The pitching staff looks significantly worse without James McDonald slicing through opposing lineups every time out on the mound. The bullpen has hiccupped. The defense has had some occasional lapses. They play ugly games; they lost two in a row to the Cubs almost three weeks ago, they lost two in a row to the Cubs and Astros a week and a half ago, and now they've dropped three straight to the Diamondbacks and Padres.
It's hard to watch and it's frustrating and sure, it's worrisome because the Pirates fell apart so spectacularly last year. There's no denying that. Baseball isn't made up of three game samples, though, and it's not made up of two or three week splits and it's not even made up of half seasons; baseball is a 162-game seasons. It's a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Once upon a time, the top of this site was adorned with an Andy Van Slyke quote:
Every season has its peaks and valleys. What you have to try to do is eliminate the Grand Canyon.
This Pirate team is not in the Grand Canyon. Not by a long shot. If you draw the curtain back to just about any recent arbitrary endpoint beyond the last week, they're hanging pretty tough. Since the All-Star break, they're 15-13. Since their sweep of the Marlins, they're 9-10. Even if you just go back to the start of the Cincy series, they're 3-6 with a pretty good chance to win this afternoon. I'm not arguing that 4-6 is great, just that it's not 0-10. It's not 10 in a row or 12 of 13 or 3-15. Through all of these ugly losses, the Pirates still have a game and a half on the Cardinals and they're still within striking distance of the Reds.
Here's the question that we should all be asking ourselves this morning: Is there any reason to think that the Pirates of the last three weeks are more "the real Pirates" than the Pirates of June? That reason has to extend beyond "because they're the Pirates." That doesn't fly. Do we have reason to think that we're only going to see Bad James McDonald from here on out? That the only Andrew McCutchen we're going to see between now and October is Leadoff Hitter McCutchen and not NL MVBEAST McCutchen? Will Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones not get hot again? Will Travis Snider and Starling Marte not offer a real upgrade over Jose Tabata and Alex Presley once they get settled in and see significant playing time?
All of these things are possible, of course. I just don't think they're any more possible or impossible than the alternative. The Pirates are playing poorly. They have to play better if they want to make the playoffs and there's no denying this. But we know they're capable of playing better. We've seen it and it wasn't that long ago. There's lots of baseball left.
Earl Weaver once famously said, "Momentum is the next day's pitcher." The Pirates have lost three games in a row, including two really ugly losses to the Padres. Today, Ross Ohlendorf pitches against Erik Bedard. Ross Ohlendorf is still Ross Ohlendorf. Erik Bedard has looked much improved since the All-Star break and it seems like he's made some adjustments to ensure that he stays on that path. Who knows? Every move out of a valley starts with one game.
The first pitch today is at 1:35.
This will be the third straight time that AJ Burnett starts a game with the Pirates on a two-game losing streak. Because the Pirates have elected to go with a six-man rotation, Burnett hasn't pitched since Sunday and won't pitch again until next Friday. I guess he better get his money's worth tonight.
Jason Marquis goes for the Padres. First pitch tonight is at 7:05.
I missed last night's game, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened. James McDonald got hammered again by the Padres, giving up seven runs and two homers in 4 1/3 innings. That helped the Pirates to blow a six-run lead to a bad baseball team. Since the All-Star break, McDonald has an 8.71 ERA, he's allowed 8 homers in 31 innings, opponents are hitting .321/.412/.580 against him.
After the game, Clint Hurdle told reporters that he was moving to a six-man rotation for at least a little while with Kevin Correia slotting back into place on Tuesday. This drives me a little bit insane: a straight-up six man rotation takes your sixth best starter and gives him starts that belong to every other pitcher in the rotation, including your best starters. I understand that James McDonald clearly needs more time off and that Erik Bedard needs to be handled very carefully and that Correia has been pitching well of late, but going to straight six-man rotation will cost AJ Burnett at least one start over the season's last 50 games.
I don't have any great answers right now (I just came into work this morning and found out that my week-long experiment was potentially ruined overnight by ... someone that is not me), but I'd much rather see the Pirates send McDonald to the bullpen for a week to work on whatever his issues are (I'll take a look at his struggles hopefully in a post on Monday) and after that, to see the Pirates use Correia occasionally to get Bedard enough rest while making sure that Burnett gets a regular start every fourth day no matter what. Giving Correia some starts now while the rotation struggles is one thing, but six-man rotations are not long-term solutions.
It'd be pretty easy to overlook the Padres from where the Pirates are right now; they're sandwiched right in the middle of four series against playoff contenders (Reds and D'backs on one side, Dodgers and Cardinals on the other) and they're not very good (49-64). The Pirates can't really afford to look ahead at this point in the season, though, and I hope that that's clear to the team by now. Wins that they get against the Padres offer some protection for wins that maybe they don't get against the Dodgers or Cardinals or whoever.
This three-game set kicks off with Edinson Volquez and James McDonald tonight. McDonald looked mostly like his pre-All Star Break self in his last start against the Reds, even though it resulted in a loss for the Pirates. His control was back, he was missing bats, and he was quite good besides a difficult first inning. Volquez is the prototype for the pitcher that gave the Pirates problems before their offensive explosion in June; he mostly struggles with control but he's capable of big strikeout totals. If the Pirates can't draw walks against him, they'll probably make him look very good tonight.
First pitch is at 7:05. The Reds are about to beat the Cubs, so the Pirates will need a win to stay 2 1/2 back.
We talked a little bit about Justin Wilson the other day, when Clint Hurdle said he was going to transition to the bullpen for potential use in Pittsburgh down the stretch in 2012. Apparently he hasn't moved to the bullpen quite yet, because last night he threw an 8-inning no-hitter against the Charlotte Knights that was shortened by a rain storm. He also contributed 7 1/3 no-hit innings against Durham in a combined no-hitter in April.
I've kind of kicked this idea around both on the blog and on Twitter over the last ten days, but I'll come out and straight up say it this afternoon: the Pirates bullpen is struggling right now (David Manel tweeted out some alarming numbers this morning) and I think that there's a pretty good chance it could be much better with Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson in it. I think both of those guys will get September call-ups and if we're looking ahead, the Pirates have some maneuverability room for their playoff roster with Charlie Morton on the 60-day DL, but with Jared Hughes possibly faltering and two long-men (Locke and Correia) and Chad Qualls, well, there's room to make some upgrades in the bullpen right now. Part of the reason I was OK with trading Brad Lincoln is that the Pirates have plenty of talented arms to cover for his absence. It's kind of puzzling to me why some of those arms are currently in the minor leagues.
Sorry for the delay in the recap here; yesterday's weird start time meant that the Pirates' game didn't end until I was inside of Durham Bulls Athletic Park last night and I haven't really had a chance to sit down and figure out what happened until this morning.
It's pretty straightforward, though; if you give up three home runs with a guy on base, you're probably going to lose. This is actually something Pirate fans know pretty well after the team's homer-happy romp through June and July, I'd assume. The Reds lost and the Cardinals won yesterday, so the Pirates find themselves smack in the middle of the five games that separate those two teams.
In any case, a split against the Diamondbacks isn't an awful result in a four-game series, but the Pirates do need to rack up some wins against the Padres this weekend to fully capitalize on the Reds' five-game losing streak, I think.
When the Pirates kicked off this make-or-break 20-games-in-20-days stretch a week ago, I figured in my head that if they went 12-8 over this stretch that they'd be in really good shape. 12-8 over these 20 games would give them 72 wins on August 23rd and it'd put them 20 games over .500. They didn't get off to a great start in dropping two of three to the Reds, but taking three from the Diamondbacks would mean that they'd just have to go 8-5 against the Dodgers, Padres, Cardinals, and Padres to hit the 12-8 plateau. Not easy, but definitely doable.
Winning three of four from Arizona requires a win this afternoon. Wandy Rodriguez is making his third Pirate start today; he pitched pretty poorly in his first start against the Astros, but the Pirates won. He pitched quite well in his second start against the Reds, but the Pirates lost. He goes up against Joe Saunders, who is a lefty, which means that Pedro Alvarez is not in the lineup today and Josh Harrison is batting second. At least Mike McKenry and Jordy Mercer are both playing today.
The start time today is 4:05, which is weird but seems like it would be kind of awesome if I lived in Pittsburgh. Alas, I am at a desk in a lab in North Carolina.
Last night was the Pirates' 110th game.
In the Pirates' 110th game of 2011, they entered with a chance to get back to .500 despite a six-game losing streak. The Cubs took an early 4-0 lead, but the Pirates piled back on with six runs in the bottom of the fourth. The bullpen gave up three runs in the eighth inning and the Pirates lost 7-6. They fell seven games behind the Brewers, and they never had a chance to get back to .500 again.
In the Pirates' 110th game of 2012, they gave the Diamondbacks a 2-0 lead early on, but fought back to take a 4-2 lead. They gave that lead up, too, but put three more runs on the board to go up 7-4. The bullpen and the defense tried to blow the lead, but the Pirates held on and won 7-6. They're 16 games above .500, 2 1/2 behind the Reds, 3 1/2 up on the Cardinals for the final playoff spot.
These Pirates are not last year's Pirates. If you're a long-time WHYGAVS reader, you know that I've always said that 82 wins shouldn't be a goal, but a landmark to pass on the way to something bigger. The Pirates only need 19 wins in their last 52 games to get to 82; it's time to dream about something bigger.