The Pirates 2015 loss in the Wildcard game is disappointing on several levels. Yes, the Bucs lost to the best post-All Star Game pitcher baseball has ever seen (Jake Arrieta’s 0.75 ERA over his final 15 starts is the lowest in history), but that doesn’t remove the sting of Pittsburgh being one-and-done after a 98-win season.
The biggest disappointments, in no particular order:
It’s now a growing body of work of the Pirates being Bengals-esque, i.e. playoff choke artists. And while Gerrit Cole isn’t Andy Dalton quite yet, he’s been out-‘aced’ in two of the last three postseasons just as Dalton has been out-‘elited’. To see Cole beaten by a rookie bat in Kyle Schwarber, talented though he may be, was troubling. It would have somehow felt better if a more established guy, like Anthony Rizzo, had done the RBI damage. Can the Pirates win the big ones? Can Cole?
The Pirates’ bullpen this season was the best we’ve ever seen it. Not just due to the team-record in saves (51) by Mark Melancon, but also the lowest collective bullpen ERA (2.64) in the majors this year. The Bucs were 36-17 in one-run games, also the best in baseball. Their margin for victory was small, and they need an elite ‘pen to win over one-third of the time. Can they keep this unit together? Melancon will likely be traded as he hits the final year of arbitration (this has become the Pirates’ way). Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, and Antonio Bastardo are fee agents. Plus, the team only has control of Tony Watson for two more seasons. GM Neal Huntington has been a bullpen miracle worker for his entire reign, but every year I question if he can pull it off again.
The Pirates’ offense has scored one run in their last three win-and-advance chances at PNC Park in the playoffs, that coming on a Pedro Alvarez solo home-run off Michael Wacha in 2013 Game Four. They have a grand total of nine hits in those three losses. Wacha, Madison Bumgarner, and Arrieta are indeed the best-of-the-best, but that doesn’t excuse the complete ineptness at the dish.
For my money, Starling Marte had the two worst at-bats of the loss to the Cubs on Wednesday. With Andrew McCutchen on first base in the first inning, Marte struck out on three pitches and chased out of the zone to do so. Yes, perhaps McCutchen should have attempted a steal, but thanks to Marte he didn’t have long to decide. Then, in the sixth inning with PNC Park erupting, Marte’s 6-4-3 double-play plugged the volcano. As Gary Sheffield said on TBS, Marte had to get the ball in the air in that situation; a strikeout would have been better than something on the ground, and you knew how Arrieta was going to pitch you (low). In all, Marte ended three innings on Wednesday night. He is not a cleanup hitter.
The Pirates need a number four hitter, plain and simple. Perhaps Jung Ho Kang is that guy, but his injury brings it all into question. Alvarez has the closer statistical profile, but he’s proven he can’t mentally hack it. Without proper protection, McCutchen can be avoided by opposing teams. Good cleanup hitters don’t grow on trees, but it’s Huntington’s job to find one. There are three years left in the McCutchen-era, and the clock is ticking. The home-grown plan isn’t working. It’s time to trade Neil Walker, Alvarez, Melancon and/or prospects to get one.
All that said, this year’s Pirates loss isn’t anywhere close to 1992-Cabrera level of devastating. That, of course, was Game 7 with the NL Pennant on the line. This was a coin-flip game, where having home field advantage seems to be a disadvantage for some reason. And the Bengals analogy probably isn’t great, either. Football is made for one-game settings. This is baseball. 162 games. Marathon. Your team is designed to win over the long haul. So why decide it all on one night? One NFL game is the equivalent of about 10 in MLB. It’ll never happen, but to stay true to the essence of baseball they really should scale back to eight total teams making the playoffs so everyone gets a long series.
Speaking of lack of offense, welcome back the Pittsburgh Penguins to our consciousness. Just in time for an Antti Niemi “on his game” performance. The Pens’ opener wasn’t without some good chances, and Phil Kessel looks good. However, Sergei Plotnikov (yes, it’s only one game) looked too slow to play on Evgeni Malkin’s line, Beau Bennett yet again looked better suited for the AHL, and Pascal Dupuis looked missed badly. Coupled with their defensive issues, it looks like Rick Tocchet’s power play might need to be the difference maker this year. This team needs to draw penalties, and bury their man-advantage chances when they get them. Or, get used to seeing the ‘three-headed-monster’ line scrambling late in third periods to try and dig out of two-goal deficits.
I, too, am confused as to why rookie Daniel Sprong basically didn’t play in the third period of Thursday night’s loss in Dallas. Was he being punished? I understand they had to kill four-third period penalties, and Sprong doesn’t play on the PK. But what about the other 12 minutes of action (actually, more like 14 minutes as Jamie Benn wasted no time in scoring on one man advantage)? If you’re not going to use one of your better offensive threats when trailing by multiple goals, why did you keep Sprong on the team?
But, like MLB, the NHL is a marathon sport. I am as guilty as any of overreacting to the season opener every year. Last year, the Penguins were an offensive juggernaut in a wild win over Anaheim. It meant absolutely nothing when the playoffs came around.
Except, given how close the 2014-15 standings were, that Anaheim win may have made the difference in making or not making the playoffs. But let’s not quibble.
Ah, playoffs? Playoffs? How do you feel about the Steelers chances of heading to Jim Mora’s favorite place after their 2-2 start? Monday night’s game in San Diego just may be of the season-turning-point variety, and the win feels like it is there for the taking. The Chargers’ offensive line is a mess, and the Steelers defense is playing with growing confidence. Mike Vick has had a few extra days to prepare and Vick’s favorite preseason toy, wide receiver Martavis Bryant may return, lower body-soreness permitting. Le’Veon Bell is ready to roll in primetime. If they can steal one on the west coast, even packing a 3-4 record for Ben Roethlisberger’s return keeps them in the hunt. With Arizona and a road trip to Kansas City on the horizon, this Monday feels like Vick’s best chance to earn a W in Victober.