Bucs will go as far as pitching takes them
McCutchen worthy of MVP consideration, but arms hold key to October run
We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.
So far, we've covered the American League East champion Boston Red Sox, the National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, the NL East champion Atlanta Braves, the AL West champion Oakland A's, the AL Central champion Detroit Tigers, the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, who claimed the NL's second Wild Card spot.
We continue now with the other NL Wild Card winner, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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But it's true, folks. The Pirates are entering the postseason for the first time in 21 years, and they do so with the knowledge that, while this season will be regarded as a special one, no matter the October result, they have the ability to make some more memories before 2013 comes to a close.
This Wild Card berth, this escape from two decades of sub-.500 captivity, is the product of many things. It took foresight from team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington. It took dedication from franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen. It took belief backing up the booming voice of manager Clint Hurdle. It took endless effort from the unheralded guys who scout and develop and prepare and refine the players coming through the pipeline and those brought aboard from the outside.
And, yes, it took patience -- an incredible amount of patience -- from the die-hard fans who showed up at PNC Park on those nights when an October entry seemed light years away.
Now that it's here, we can look at the Pirates as yet another example of the weight of savvy drafting and shrewd signings, especially in smaller markets. The Pirates built this thing up right, be it through the amateur Draft that brought them the likes of McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Jordy Mercer, Neil Walker and Tony Watson ; the international efforts that landed Starling Marte ; the trades that targeted A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Mark Melancon, Charlie Morton and Jeanmar Gomez ; or the under-the-radar Minor League signings of Jason Grilli and Garrett Jones.
They filled in the holes in free agency last winter with what turned out to be two excellent additions -- Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin. And they topped it all off this summer by bringing in Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and John Buck.
You don't cease a historic slump by accident, nor do you get off easy. The 2013 Pirates have taken the hard road to October, and that's most evident in their pitching staff. Liriano and Burnett missed time early in the year with injuries to their non-throwing arms. Purported No. 2 starter Wandy Rodriguez took the mound just 12 times before a left elbow injury cut his year short. Morton spent the first half recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Locke had a rough second half. The closer, Grilli, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and then -- coincidentally? -- landed on the disabled list. The depth provided by guys like Melancon, Cole, Gomez and Brandon Cumpton wasn't just helpful, it was essential.
And there have been times when the horrors of the 2011 and '12 second-half collapses seemed to be coming back again. The Pirates were a season-high 26 games over .500 on Aug. 8, only to lose 17 of their next 28, looking at times like they might run out of healthy arms.
But this season was too special to be spoiled. The Pirates not only managed to clinch a winning record and playoff spot, but, with a strong showing in the season's final week, they clinched home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card Game.
That guarantees those Buccos fans at least one home game in October. It's been a long time coming, and now it's here.
The bats: The cold, hard truth is that this is the least productive offense of any of the October entrants. With 3.89 runs per game, the Pirates rank 20th in the Majors, and they rate near the bottom in batting average with runners in scoring position (.229) and sacrifice flies (29). Byrd has helped improve the right-field production, which had been a black hole, but the two biggest offensive keys for the Pirates remain Starling Marte in the leadoff spot and McCutchen in the three-hole. Marte could be particularly pivotal. He has provided a nice boost the last couple weeks since missing a month with a bruised right hand. He's a dynamo atop the order when he's healthy and in a groove.
The arms: The cast has evolved considerably as the season has gone along, with 12 guys making starts. But the bottom line is that the Pirates have compiled the sixth-best rotation ERA (3.51) in the game, and Liriano (6-8, 3.02 ERA) and Burnett (10-11, 3.30) make for an appealing one-two punch at the top, while the rookie Cole has been terrific in September (4-0, 1.69) en route to earning an October rotation spot. With Grilli back, a bullpen with the third-best ERA (2.87) in the game is at full strength, and the entire pitching staff benefits from arguably the best defense of any playoff team.
The MVP: For the franchise that lost Barry Bonds, Jason Bay, Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez and every other homegrown star over the course of a 20-year slump, words cannot express the positive vibes that came from McCutchen signing a six-year, $51.5 million extension in 2012. McCutchen stayed because he loves Pittsburgh and he knew he could be part of a winner there, and now the Pirates are a winner in large measure because of the stellar production (.317/.404/.503) and defensive play he's provided. He's not just the MVP of this team; he ought to be the MVP of the NL.
The ace: The 36-year-old Burnett is the leader, but Liriano is the ace. The Pirates took a chance on Liriano last winter at a time when most Major League teams wouldn't touch him. His once-bright career had flamed out under a heap of over-5.00 ERAs. And to make matters worse, he broke his non-pitching arm just after agreeing to terms (but before signing). That turned out to be perhaps the best offseason signing of any in baseball, as Liriano healed up and has been untouchable at times. He is 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park, where he'll start the Wild Card Game.
The unsung hero: Grilli and Melancon were both deserving NL All-Stars, and their value to this club at the back end of the bullpen cannot be overstated. But the left-handed Watson has also been instrumental in protecting late-innings leads. Hurdle has turned to him 66 times this season, and Watson has responded with a 2.42 ERA and 0.89 WHIP.
The pressing question: Will the bats boom when it matters most? They broke out with six homers on Saturday in the home-field clincher, so that's an awfully encouraging sign. Less encouraging is that they've been held to one run in 12 1/3 innings this season against the Reds' Wild Card Game starter, Johnny Cueto.