The Pirates enter Friday night's contest against the Cincinnati Reds 5.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards scored three in the bottom of the 9th last night and shrimped their way to a 9-8 win over the Rockies, with the least exuberant walk-off celebration you are likely to see this year, while the Bucs got hammered 15-5 by the Reds.
Despite calls to upgrade the starting rotation, find another lefty reliever and get a right-handed bat to platoon with Pedro Alvarez, it's unlikely Neal Huntington's going to make any more moves before the 4 pm EST trade deadline. Aramis Ramirez, Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria are this year's haul. Upgrades for sure, but not the splash always desired.
So where does that leave the Bucs with 61 games remaining?
At 59-42 they have the second best record in the NL and are five games clear of the Cubs in the race for the second wild card. They have a roughly 92% chance of making the playoffs. The Pirates problems this year have been in the division. At 17-25 they have by far the worst intra-division record, anchored by their 2-8 mark against the Reds. (St. Louis, by contrast is 26-15 vs. the NLC.) The Pirates have 34 games left within the division, nine with the Cards, Cubs and Reds and seven with the Brewers. 32 of the 61 are on the road where the Bucs are 24-25. (Yea, the Cards. Best road record in the league at 27-22.)
So how is this team going to catch the Cardinals who schedule looks incredibly favorable down the stretch, including ten games each with the denuded Reds and Brewers?
The short answer is they probably aren't. But here is the most likely way for it to happen:
1.) Get healthy. The Pirates need to get through this stretch of nine games and hope to win at least five. It starts tonight with three at Cincy, followed by a six game homestand with the Cubs and Dodgers. The bench is a disaster with Rodriguez, Florimon and Ishikawa, but there really is nothing Neal can do about it internally. I'm guessing Josh Harrison will be back by the St. Louis series Aug. 11th and Mercer shortly after that.
2.) Play the right guys. The Pirates infield defense is also a disaster. Kang has been serviceable at shortstop, but when everybody is healthy Kang should be at third (of the four left side infielders, he is the one who should be in the lineup every day) and Mercer at short. Obviously Ramirez and Harrison are going to get starts, but Ramirez off the bench and JHay in a super-utility role is the best lineup.
3.) Get ARam a first baseman's glove. Aramis Ramirez, and when he's healthy Josh Harrison, should be taking grounders at first base. Now. I know Ramirez has never played the position. Neither had Alvarez last year and that didn't stop the Pirates from moving him there to try and keep his bat in the lineup. Yes, I'm shocked at how poorly Pedro has adapted to the switch, but that shouldn't stop the Pirates from doing the right thing. Get Ramirez up-to-speed ASAP.
4.) Quick hooks. Right now the Pirates have two excellent starting pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Don't change a thing with either. Their next best pitcher the last two months has been Jeff Locke, 2.91 ERA, .607 OPS against since June 1. A.J. Burnett has been terrible of late, giving up 10+ hits his last three starts for the first time in his career and Charlie Morton has been bad since his great first month. With the additions of Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria, Clint has to come with the quick hook on these guys the rest of the year. Hope they go six strong and then get to the pen.
5.) Get Lucky. Everything is going to have to go the Pirates way to catch the Cards. Yesterday the Cards put Matt Holliday on the DL with a quad strain. He missed 31 games with a similar injury earlier in the season. The Pirates need to stay healthy, hope the Cards plug-and-play magic wears off and get the starting pitching that they got in the first half. It's a stretch. But not impossible.