“Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.”
This quote in Sun Tzu’s age-old classic The Art of War speaks to the virtues and benefits of superior planning in relation to winning in combat.
Unfortunately, it can also roughly be translated as an understanding of the Pittsburgh Pirates in relation to their underwhelming performance in their last four home games against the Chicago Cubs.
When summing up the first two games of the current series between the Pirates and Cubs and adding in the 2015 National League Wild Card game and the final regular season matchup between these two teams at PNC Park on September 17, 2015, these four games have two things in common:
– A) The Pirates’ starting pitcher allowed six runs (at least four earned) and didn’t survive past the fifth inning.
– B) The Pirates lost.
The names of the pitchers who started those four games: Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole (twice) and Jonathan Niese. Two of those games have come against Chicago’s ace, Jake Arrieta, who is currently in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in baseball history by a pitcher not named Gibson, Koufax or Pedro Martinez.
But this isn’t as much about the Cubs’ pitcher as it is about the guy on the mound facing them wearing a white or black jersey, depending on the day. This is about the Pirates losing each of these games long before they are finally decided, and their starting pitching is the main reason why.
There were major adjustments this team was expected to make in order to contend for a fourth consecutive playoff appearance (or even their first division championship since 1992). One of them was winning more games in April. They did that with a six-game winning streak to finish with a 15-9 record for the month, tied for the second-most wins in the opening month of the season in club history. In five of the six games during that streak the Pirates’ starters pitched six innings or longer, and in four of them they allowed two earned runs or fewer.
See the difference?
Another major adjustment was winning more games against division opponents. Entering this series against Chicago the Pirates were 8-4 against National League Central teams and had a record of .500 or above against each of them, except the one they hadn’t faced yet, which brings us to another pivotal element that had to change. The Pirates had to beat the Cubs, and so far that hasn’t happened.
Pitching coach Ray Searage has been saddled with the possibly unrealistic expectation of trying to squeeze every drop of quality out of this staff, if only because he’s done it routinely over the past few seasons. But try as he might, Searage can only lead them to the water. He can’t make them drink it. (Nor is he a skilled enough surgeon to perform any cranial-rectal separation procedures on his pitchers, if you catch my drift.)
The offense isn’t without blame, having scored only three runs in the first two games of this series, despite coming in with the best batting average and on-base percentage in the majors and having scored the fifth-most runs. But the offense can’t seem to get off the ground without the pitching going in the tank first. That’s a tough hole to climb out of continually. And with these two teams meeting again next week at Wrigley Field to cap off 15 straight division games, the Pirates aren’t even halfway through those woods yet.
Juan Nicasio starts the finale of this series having won each of his three home starts and logging 6+ innings with three earned runs or less allowed in each of them. They’re going to need more of that to avoid being swept in a three-game series for the first time this season. But they also need him and his comrades to break this troubling trend, or they could potentially find themselves looking up at the team who holds first place in their division and the best record in baseball for the second season in a row.
And if that problem isn’t fixed soon, this season-long division battle could be lost before it is ever really fought.