Make or break week? Pirates get Marte back and face Brewers in four-game series
The Pirates are seven games out in the NL Central, but this week could make their season
Did you forget about the Pittsburgh Pirates this season?
It's possible -- well, probably likely -- that many did several weeks ago. Early in the season, they lost Starling Marte to an 80-game PED suspension while Jung Ho Kang battled legal trouble in South Korea and Andrew McCutchen looked like he was lost at the plate for good. There were closer issues and Gerrit Cole was still having trouble coming close to his 2015 form. Jameson Taillon even battled cancer. Not much more could have gone wrong, on or off the field.
Things could be turning now, though, and if the Pirates are going to contend this season, this is the week that will stand out as the big turning point, even if things already started to pick up.
First off, McCutchen remembered who he was. The perennial MVP candidate who hit .313/.404/.523 from 2012-15 is slashing .397/.495/.709 with 12 doubles, 11 homers, 31 RBI, 37 runs and more walks than strikeouts in his last 42 games. It's one of the best extended hot streaks in his entire career, which is saying something.
Cole still isn't all the way back, but he has gone at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs in five of his last six starts. There was a stinker (7 ER in 5 1/3 IP) wedged in there, but he's still managed a 3.38 ERA in those last six starts with the Pirates going 5-1 in those games.
In six starts since his cancer scare, Taillon has pitched to a 2.78 ERA. In coming back from freaking cancer, he's also shown his mental toughness.
The bullpen has settled in with a 1.93 ERA in July and Felipe Rivero (0.74 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 56 K, 12 BB, 48.1 IP) is a veritable force at the back end.
The Pirates now head into Monday having won seven of their last nine games. They still sit seven games back of the Brewers in the NL Central, but there's a huge opportunity this week.
The Pirates host the Brewers for a four-game series.
There's more: Marte returns from his suspension on Tuesday.
Remember, Marte is an exceptional defensive left fielder who hit .311/.362/.456 with 34 doubles, five triples, nine homers and 47 steals last season. Many considered him the Pirates' best position player heading into the year. With McCutchen now appearing to be the Cutch of old, maybe Marte has to settle for second-best, but that's no insult. Think about trading for an All-Star in front of the deadline without having to actually give anyone up? That's essentially what the Pirates will do on Tuesday (well, aside from the fact that Marte isn't eligible to play in the postseason, but the Pirates can cross that bridge if they get to it).
Again, the seven-game deficit isn't small, but what if the Pirates sweep the Brewers? All of a sudden, that's a three-game deficit with more than 60 games to play. Obviously the downside is being swept and falling 11 back, in which case the season is over. I'm just trying to look at the opportunity the Pirates have and the timing of them starting to play really well with Marte coming back at the perfect time. The stars could be aligning for a big move. Even winning three of four means they are within five games, which is striking range. They'd also probably have to deal with the Cubs and possibly the Cardinals in the NL Central race along with the Brewers, but everyone gets the main point here.
The Pirates are playing great baseball, getting back a great player on Tuesday and have a great opportunity to thrust themselves into the NL Central race this week. It'll be fun to see how that series unfolds.
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