2011 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Season on the Brink

Foreword: I approached Griggsy the other day about writing an article about the Pirates because he is a much better and more learned fan of baseball than I am or could ever be. It just so happens that we are on similar wavelength regarding the Pirates’ season and the infamous Jerry Meals safe call to end the 19-inning marathon game. I hope Griggsy and maybe even some of you out there will continue to make Avoid the Clap an enjoyable blog and provide some different perspectives on things. Comments are appreciated or you can contact us directly here .

With that, I give the floor to Griggsy.

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The Major League Baseball season lasts 162 games. It’s by far the longest of any pro sport. Baseball fans will tell you that this makes certain that the teams that deserve to make the playoffs are the ones who get in. They also will tell you that it ensures that no one game makes or breaks a team’s season.

Tell that to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans.

In the aftermath of a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in 19 innings on July 26th (and 27th), the Pirates have gone into a tailspin of epic proportions. That game was the beginning of a stretch of 7 losses in 8 games. The Pirates have gone from a first place tie in the NL Central to being in third place, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

All of this, as the result of arguably the worst blown call by an umpire in the history of baseball.

Before I get into that, let me state that I do not like blaming officials. By and large, the players on the playing surface decide who wins and loses. Blaming officiating tends to mask mistakes made by the players that cause them to lose.

But, in this case, the call actually decided who won the game. Not saying the Pirates would have ultimately won the game. This call, however, did not allow the Pirates to win or lose the game on merit. Jerry Meals’ call, which I won’t get into detail because everyone who is reading this either has seen the play or can go find it in 5 seconds, prevented the fair outcome of the game from occurring. After using just about every player on the roster, some for far too long, it’s a massive stomach punch to lose a game in that manner.

Teams tend to get their mettle tested after something of this nature. A lot of adversity is heaped upon a team, with exhausted and frustrated players having to come back to play another game 17 hours later. It’s not as easy for players to put a game like this behind them. It tends to linger or fester, with all the replays shown on TV, and the media wanting to talk about it, and fans complaining about it, and the team’s front office releasing a statement about it, and so on. Men that are taught to have short memories inevitably cannot shake this moment from their brains.

As mentioned, the Pirates have stumbled in the aftermath. A team that stood at 53-47 after 100 games, as they took the field for this 19-inning marathon, now has completed two-thirds of their season, and they are wobbling at 54-54. And in the last eight games, the major problem has been pitching. Before the marathon, Pirates pitchers were giving the team consistent turns through the rotation. Since then, here are the rotation’s results:

7/27- @ATL – L, 2-1 (10 Innings) – Maholm: 7IP, 9H, 1R, 1ER, 0BB, 8K
7/28- @ATL – W, 5-2 – Correia: 6.1IP, 9H, 2R, 1ER, 1BB, 3K
7/29- @PHI – L, 10-3 – Morton: 4IP, 9H, 8R, 6ER, 4BB, 4K
7/30- @PHI – L, 7-4 – McDonald: 5IP, 10H, 5R, 5ER, 2BB, 5K
7/31- @PHI – L, 6-5 (10 Innings) – Karstens: 7IP, 7H, 3R, 3ER, 2BB, 5K
8/1- v. CHC – L, 5-3 – Maholm: 6IP, 6H, 4R, 4ER, 3BB, 3K
8/2- v. CHC – L, 11-6 – Correia: 2IP, 10H, 8R, 8ER, 0BB, 2K

[EN: Per Griggsy’s request, it is to be noted that this was written prior to the loss to the Cubs on 8/3, as such those stats have not been included.]

Now, to be fair, of the seven games after the marathon, there were 3 awful starts, 1 average start, 1 good start, and 2 great starts. But it’s not just the starts themselves. It’s also the workload on the bullpen that is making the pitching staff as a whole fall apart. After the bullpen worked 13.1 of 18.1 innings in the marathon, they were forced to pitch 24.1 of 61.2 innings in the seven games since. For relief pitchers that were thriving on a reasonable number of innings, this change in workload for them has turned the bullpen into a disappointing entity as a whole. This is without even mentioning the inconsistent usage of the best reliever, Joel Hanrahan.

To review, this is now a struggling (at best) rotation, an overworked bullpen, and a confusingly used closer. It’s no wonder that the team has lost 7 of 8 games now. With the offense sputtering along (3.75 runs per game in the last eight, consistent with the 3.84 runs per game average for the season), the pitching has to be similarly consistent with the season totals. Obviously, giving up 5.88 runs per game will not cut it (nearly two full runs over the 3.94 runs allowed per game average for the year).

For those of you looking to take this forward a step, you’d ask how the Atlanta Braves are doing over this post-marathon stretch of games. If the Pirates players are worn out, the Braves played the same game, and would be similarly worn out. This has shown slightly for the Braves, as they are 4-4 over those same eight days, dropping their last three. The fatigue may be catching up with them a little bit now, but it did not in the immediate aftermath. Including the 19-inning game, the Braves went 4-1 right away. The momentum and adrenaline provided by winning that game carried the Braves in the short-term, allowing them to stay afloat despite fatigue issues. This has kept them in control of the NL Wild Card lead, albeit a slightly shrinking lead. Meanwhile, if the Pirates had gone 4-4 instead of 1-7 in these last eight games, they would be sitting in a 2nd place tie in the division, only 2.5 games behind a hot Milwaukee team.

Is the 2011 season over for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least in terms of playoff contention? Not quite, but it is certainly at the precipice. They are a team teetering on the edge, and one more turn through the rotation with bad results would send them falling away for sure. Jerry Meals’ call didn’t devastate the season for the Buccos, but he has given them a push that may send them falling back to earth, hard, after four months of climbing towards the pennant.

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