With the Cardinals’ 5-3 win in Arizona against the Diamondbacks Monday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates now have a record of 75-48, putting them 3.5 games behind St. Louis for first place in the National League Central Division.
The good news for the Pirates is the Cardinals still have six games remaining in a 10-game West Coast road trip, all of them against teams still in the playoff hunt (Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants).
The bad news is the Cardinals are 32-26 on the road, the highest road winning percentage in baseball, and the Pirates have a similar long road trip of their own ahead.
And unlike Dr. Emmett Brown, where the Pirates are going, they do need roads. Or more specifically, road wins.
When their four games in Miami are finished, the Pirates will return home for a three-game respite against the NL West bottom-feeding Colorado Rockies before heading right back out for a nine-game road trip that will take them to Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis. To make matters worse: the Pirates are 5-14 combined on the road against those three division foes. Mix in the remaining three games in Miami and that makes 12 of the Bucs’ next 15 contests away from PNC Park.
The Pirates have taken care of business quite well at home with a record of 44-20, the second-best home record in the National League. They also have the league’s third-best road record at 31-28.
But in order to overtake St. Louis — or at least keep in step over the next two weeks — third-best won’t be good enough.
The Pirates have won games with their starting pitching, bullpen, and most recently, their offense. They’ve won more games than they’ve lost at home and on the road, in nine innings and in extra innings, in one-run games and in blowouts.
But can the Pirates improve in the one area they are lacking by comparison? Can they win meaningful games on the road? Recent trends say it’s possible; they have won seven of their last 10 road games, 11 of their last 20 and 17 of their last 30 away from Pittsburgh.
But over this 13-game span in four different cities, seven or eight wins might not suffice. It could take nine or 10 wins just to stay afloat, barring an extended losing streak by the Cardinals.
It would be nice to assume the Cardinals are in line for a skid, that other shoe eventually dropping on what could’ve been written off as a season lost to injuries and bad luck. But the Pirates can’t afford to bank on that assumption. They have only one choice: survive and advance.
Monday night in Miami was a good first step on the journey ahead. But it was only a single chapter in what could be the heroic adventure that brings back the first division title Pittsburgh has seen in 23 seasons.
The desired ending of that adventure is still within reach, but it will require passing yet another milestone, completing the only task they have fallen short of along the way.
And for the Pirates, there’s no better (or more important) time than the present.