Last night the Pirates completed an 18-game stretch that I had called the most interesting stretch of games over the past 20 years. In reality it may have been the most interesting stretch in my 45 years following the team. They went 13-5 playing the the three division leaders and the three teams with the next best records in the NL. It all started with a pitching matchup between Francisco Liriano and Jon Lester that got rained out. The Pirates entered the Aug 4th matchup 5.5 games back of the Cardinals and 4 ahead of the Cubs. Here is what followed:
Game 1: Tuesday Aug 4, Pirates lose 5-0 to Cubs at PNC Park (0-1)
Things didn't start auspiciously. J.A. Happ made his Pirates debut and didn't make it through five. Jake Arrieta dominated the Pirates for seven innings. This is the guy the Pirates don't want to face in the wild card game. In three starts against the Bucs: 21 IP, 11 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 19 K 0.86 ERA 0.714 WHIP.
Game 2: Wednesday Aug 5, Pirates defeat Cubs 7-5 at PNC Park (1-1)
The Bucs jumped ahead early on a Polanco HR. Jeff Locke cruised through five, but imploded in the sixth giving up two homers that left things tied at 4. The Pirates countered with two in the bottom of the sixth and the bullpen made it stand up. It was notable that Mark Melancon gave up an earned run for the first time 34 appearances, dating back to May 11.
Game 3: Friday Aug 7, Pirates defeat Dodgers 5-4 in 10 at PNC Park (2-1)
The Clayton Kershaw-Gerrit Cole matchup that didn't live up to the hype. Polanco opened the game with a first-pitch home run that broke a 37-inning Kershaw scoreless streak. Both pitchers only went six innings with Kershaw giving up four runs and Cole giving up three. The Bucs won in the 10th on an Alvarez single to right that scored Kang.
Game 4: Saturday Aug 8, Pirates defeat Dodgers 6-5 at PNC Park (3-1)
This one, 6-4 after three, was highlighted by Francisco Liriano's first-ever extra base hit. It just happened to be a 3-run homer down the left field line off Mat Latos. The bullpen saved the day as Liriano only went three. This marked the start of an incredibly impressive run by Joe Blanton as he went three scoreless and got the win.
Game 5: Sunday Aug 9, Pirates defeat Dodgers 13-6 at PNC Park (4-1)
In a nationally-televised game on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Charlie Morton continued the run of poor outings by Pirates starters giving up 10 hits and 5 runs in five innings and left down 5-1. Andrew McCutchen hit one of three Pirates homers to make it 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth and then the Bucs scored 9 runs in the seventh, their most in any inning this year, and rolled to victory. Arquimedes Caminero began his own impressive run in this one going two scoreless for the win.
Game 6: Tuesday Aug 11, Pirates lose to Cards 4-3 at Busch Stadium III (4-2)
The start of a huge three game series with the division leaders saw some bad baseball by the Bucs. Leading 3-1 in the fifth Jeff Locke walked the first two batters. When the dust settled the Pirates were down 4-3 and that's how it would end as the Bucs went 2-for-9 with RISP. The Pirates fourth straight one-run loss in St. Louis left them six back of the Cards.
Game 7: Wednesday Aug 12, Pirates lose to Cards 4-2 at Busch Stadium III (4-3)
The Pirates horrible infield defense caught up with them in this one as Walker and Kang both made errors and Ramirez and Alvarez both should have been in the books as well. Cutch hit a 2-run homer briefly tying the game at 2, but Gerrit Cole got knocked out in the sixth after giving up 4 runs, 3 earned. The Pirates continued their untimely hitting going 0-for-10 with RISP.
Game 8: Thursday Aug 13, Pirates defeat Cards 10-5 at Busch Stadium III (5-3)
The Pirates finally broke through in St. Louis and they did it early and in a big way. They put up 7 in the first inning against Lance Lynn, highlighted by a 2-run bomb by Pedro Alvarez who always seems to hit best against the Redbirds. Liriano struggled early but got through six and got the first win by a Pirates starter in this stretch. The Pirates left St. Louis six back of the Cards.
Game 9: Friday Aug 14, Pirates defeat Mets 3-2 in 10 at Citifield (6-3)
J.A. Happ made the start after nine days off and being skipped the last time through the rotation. He struck out seven in 5.1 innings and a Polanco RBI single and Ramirez sac fly in the 10th gave Mark Melancon the cushion he needed as the bullpen got another win.
Game 10: Saturday Aug 15, Pirates defeat Mets 5-3 in 14 at Citifield (7-3)
The Pirates jumped out to a 3-0 lead and Charlie Morton cruised through 6. But just like Locke a week earlier, things imploded in just four batters in the 7th. A homer, strikeout, error by Ramirez, another homer and it was 3-3. Despite nine Ks, only four hits and a walk Morton left with a no-decision. The bullpen did the job going 7.2 scoreless highlighted by Blanton going 3 and striking out 6. Cervelli, Stewart and Rodriguez got hits in the 14th and the Bucs got another extra-inning win.
Game 11: Sunday Aug 16, Pirates defeat Mets 8-1 at Citifield (8-3)
The Jeff Locke-Matt Harvey matchup didn't favor the Pirates. The Pirates got one off the big righty on a second inning Alvarez homer and Jeff Locke managed to get through 5.1 before a rain delay stopped play. When things started back up Harvey was done and so were the Mets. Some terrible defense contributed to the Bucs scoring 7 runs in the seventh and eighth. Caminero got another win as the bullpen continued its great run going 3.2 scoreless.
Game 12: Monday Aug 17, Pirates lose 4-1 to Diamondbacks at PNC Park (8-4)
The Pirates were never in this one as Gerrit Cole was hit hard, giving up 3 runs in the first two innings. The Pirates went 1-for-9 with RISP and squandering chances in the sixth, seventh and eighth. The lone bright spot was a fifth inning Alvarez homer.
Game 13: Tuesday Aug 18, Pirates defeat Diamondbacks 9-8 in 15 at PNC Park (9-4)
This one looked to be a laugher as the Pirates took an 8-3 lead into the 8th. Liriano had been cruising, but the first two batters got on and the inning ended 8-6. The defense let Mark Melancon down in the 9th as errors by Kang and Rodriguez led to two unearned runs tying it at 8. Blanton and Caminero continued their shutdown ways, each going three scoreless and the Bucs plated one in the 15th on a Pedro Florimon walk-off triple.
Game 14: Wednesday Aug 19, Pirates defeat Diamondbacks 4-1 at PNC Park (10-4)
A Pirates starter gets just the second win during this stretch as J.A. Happ is superb through six giving up 2 hits and 0 runs. A 3-run second is more than enough and Melancon throws a filthy 9th, striking out the side.
Game 15: Thursday Aug 20, Pirates defeat Giants 4-0 at PNC Park (11-4)
Another great starting pitching effort, this time by Charlie Morton, 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 8K. Jared Hughes came in and got the final out of the 7th with the bases loaded. A 2-run HR by Neil Walker gave the bullpen some insurance.
Game 16: Friday Aug 21, Pirates lose 6-4 to Giants at PNC Park (11-5)
Madison Bumgarner made his return to the scene of the crime, having beaten the Pirates 8-0 in the 2014 wild card game at PNC. Another tough matchup for Jeff Locke and he wasn't up to the task giving up 11 hits and 6 runs in 5 innings. Bumgarner wasn't sharp but that was enough. Josh Harrison made his return from the DL.
Game 17: Saturday Aug 22, Pirates defeat Giants 3-2 at PNC Park (12-5)
Kang! Kang! Marte!. Three solo homers including a Marte walkoff in the 9th led the Pirates to victory. Gerrit Cole had his best outing in a month giving up just one unearned run and Melancon set the stage for victory with a six-pitch 9th. Kang was the star, but Marte also saved a homer in the second, robbing Cole's future brother-in-law Brandon Crawford.
Game 18: Sunday Aug 23, Pirates defeat Giants 5-2 at PNC Park (13-5)
A 3-run first set the stage and homers by Cutch and Pedro completed the scoring. Liriano went 5.1 innings without giving up a run and the bullpen continued its magic. Alvarez committed two more errors and Walker added another as the Pirates infield defense continues to be a concern. Jordy Mercer returned from the DL and was a late-inning defensive replacement.
The Pirates finish this stretch 13-5, .722%, scoring 92 runs and giving up 67. They gained two games on the Cards despite going 1-2 head-to-head. They actually lost a game to the Cubs who went 14-4, .778%. The starters went just 3-5 in this stretch, the bullpen 10-0.
Cutch .333/.468/.633 1.102 OPS, with 4 HR 13 RBI 16 BB 16 K (started 17/18)
Alvarez .360/.365/.700 1.065, with 5 HR 13 RBI 1 BB 17 K (started 13/18)
Kang .273/.351/.500 .851 OPS, with 4 HR 11 RBI 5 BB 15 K (started 17/18)
Cervelli .923 OPS
Blanton 6 G 13.1 IP 9 H 0 R 5 BB 18 K 0.00 ERA 3-0 W-L
Caminero 9 G 12.2 IP 8 H 0 R 4 BB 14 K 0.00 ERA 3-0 W-L