There Was No Doubt About It

A Pittsburgh Pirates Blog

On Luck and Losing

10.08.15 Posted by

I remember the exact moment last night when I stopped being angry.

Before that point, I’d had to endure a surprising number of Cubs fans in attendance, cheering loudly every time something went well for their team (which was pretty often over the first half of the game). It was jarring, and not something I’d expected: I went each of the last two years and the best term I can think of to describe the number of Reds and Giants fans I saw is “non-zero.” But there were a good dozen Cub fans in our section alone, and they had a lot to cheer.

So by the time the 6th inning rolled around, I was already in full Overly Serious Sports Fan Mode. I hate this. I hate it when fans of any sport think and act like this: when rivalries become really personal. There are so few situations where it’s genuinely warranted. But I felt it. I felt the desire for the Pirates to win mixed in with—tainted with—the desire to make those other fans feel bad. Vengeance rather than justice, really.

Then Jake Arietta started to fall apart. He fell behind in the count to something like two batters all game up to that point, but now he was falling behind all of them, and hitting some of them. And he wasn’t just missing his spots: Miguel Montero was leaping to catch pitches, suggesting that the pitch was nowhere near the intended target.

Arietta had loaded the bases, and the only out he’d gotten was an absolute bullet to third (barely caught, of course). The crowd came alive. In that moment they were as loud and excited as at any point in 2013. And I looked around at the Cubs fans in our section, and they were the only ones seated. Most of them probably couldn’t see, but it was clear they didn’t want to. They were terrified.

And right then, I let go of my anger. For all the cheering and bravado, they were just as stressed and frazzled by this one-game format as I was. And when Arietta lucked into a double play to somehow escape without a run crossing the plate, none of them jumped out of their seats. None of them pumped their fists or yelled in triumph. They all just exhaled.

I guess the reaction I just described is, for Major League Baseball, a feature and not a bug. But on the losing side it brings to mind a lot of over-the-top, borderline-existential questions about the meaninglessness of it all.

Lazy analysis of last night’s game will treat it like the Bumgarner start. It’s seductively easy to say “Jake Arietta was great in the second half, dominated the Pirates, and just kept doing that in the Wild Card game.” Simple. But as Dave Cameron points out, he needed an awful lot of luck. He was legitimately in control the first five innings, but he was a mess in the sixth: bouncing pitches in front of the plate and getting hit hard. Some of Arietta’s outs were hit harder than Dexter Fowler’s home run. Really, this is all you need to know:

So, losing is lame, and it’s also lame that this is going to get filed away under “Arietta just kept shutting people down.” The Pirates legitimately got to him (he was shaky the next inning, too), but it won’t look that way to anyone who isn’t looking closely. And that’s the whole point: in a single game, you can kill the ball and make an out in a big spot, and your season can end.

I’ll probably write something about the team’s prospects (both in the sense of “players” and in the sense of “possibilities”) before too long, but like most of you I’m pretty burnt out by these Wild Card games right now; I’ve been to all three of them.

Just know that last night wasn’t a repeat of last year. It’d be easier to internalize this if they’d pushed a couple of runs across in the 6th, so the game could at least look as close as it was, but those of us who were there know. We’ll remember those five minutes when PNC Park came alive again, when we were engulfed by each other’s sound again, when winning was possible again. That feeling is why I keep going back.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole


10.07.15 Posted by

There’s not much about this game I can write that I haven’t written (or tweeted) many times before. It’d be silly to deny that the Cubs are favorites—Jake Arietta’s presence alone sees to that—but it’d be just as silly to pretend the Pirates don’t have a perfectly good chance of winning. I subjectively put it at 40% a few weeks ago, Jeff Sullivan’s research came up with a similar percentage, and the oddsmakers actually have us closer to 45%.

We know why this number is as close as it is: Gerrit Cole. In almost any other season, the Pirates would’ve run away with the Central, and in almost any other season, Cole would be on the short list for the Cy Young. Cole has turned into the pitcher we all hoped he would be.

I’ve been scared of this day for months, and especially so for the last few weeks, as it became clear we’d be up against Arietta. But if we find a way to win, I’ll instantly love our chances. This is a really good, deep team, and there’s some reason to believe that its greatest strength—the bullpen—has an outsized influence in the playoffs. It’s weird to say this, but I think you can simultaneously think we’re likely to lose tonight, but also in a great position to go all the way if we don’t. I guess that’s why they call it the Wild Card: it leads to some pretty weird stuff.

I’ll be attending the Wild Card game for the third straight year. The first year was magical; the noise was unbelievable. I never knew sporting events could be like that. But this team is better, there’s less of a “just happy we got this far” vibe, and the players have been vocal in asking for noise. Throw in some mild taunting from the opposing starter, and I think we could reach the same decibelian heights tonight.

I’m confident this Pirate team has more success in front of it. I just don’t know how far in front of it that success is. Tonight, we find out.

Filed under: Gerrit Cole, Playoffs (I can't believe I get to use this tag)

Best Second-Half Predictions: 2015 Results

10.05.15 Posted by

In 2013, we asked Bucco bloggers for their second-half win predictions at the All-Star break. We did the same thing last year, and then we did it again this year. And the results are in:

Just one person correctly pegged the eventual win total of 98, Rich of This is Getting Old. This is noteworthy in large part because he’d been among the more pessimistic of predictors the prior two years, but this year he was the most optimistic (nobody overshot the total, though really, who could’ve predicted 99/100 wins?).

Second place was a tie between yours truly, and Cory from Three Rivers Blog, with 96.

Once again, the bloggers beat the statistical algorithms. Last year they were two full wins closer to the eventual total, and this year it was nearly three.

Here are the full results:



94.2 (Blogs: 95, Algos: 92.1)Average

Filed under: Predictions!

Can the Pirates Beat Jake Arietta?

10.02.15 Posted by

Filed under: Playoffs (I can't believe I get to use this tag)

Regular Season Recap

09.29.15 Posted by

Filed under: game recaps

Pirates vs. Cardinals: This Is It

09.28.15 Posted by

Happ vs. Lynn, 7:00 PM

Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that the Pirates are three back heading into this series. All season they’ve toyed with us, falling far enough back for many of us to give up on the division, only to come roaring back each time. The prospect of catching the Cardinals has been in our reach, but out of our grasp.

If we were two games back, there’d be a lot more ambiguity about what needs to be done. We could merely win this series and head into the final three games down one. And who knows? Even with the Cards facing the lowly Braves (and the Bucs facing the lowly-except-against-us Reds), we might make up that game. But it’s more likely we wouldn’t, which means we’d have one more dip in the emotional roller coaster.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll take any reduction in this deficit. But the silver lining is that we now have clarity about this series: we need to sweep. We play the Cardinals three times. We are three games behind. Simple.

Game one features J.A. Happ, who’s been less than stellar the last few starts. That’s not deliberate understatement: he was stellar before, and lately he’s been a little less than stellar. He still hasn’t had a bad start in nearly two months. His mound opponent, however, has had quite a few: Lance Lynn has a 6.11 ERA in September, during which he’s walked as many as he’s struck out. His last start was strong, but he’s failed to go even four innings in two of his last four.

This is a game we should usually win. So is the finale, with Gerrit Cole starting. Tomorrow (Morton vs. Wacha) is the game to worry about most. But they’re all at home, and we’ve gotta win them all.

All year we’ve waited for the Cardinals to slow, to regress, to stop secreting horseshoes from every orifice. Well, it’s happened: St. Louis is 13-12 in September. Their pitching has been mediocre and their offense has survived almost entirely on untenable spasms of sequencing fortune.

They’ve given us the opening. The dragon is missing a scale. Hoist the black flag and fire the black arrow.

Filed under: game preview, J.A. Happ

The Jake Arietta Show: Cubs 4, Pirates 0

09.28.15 Posted by

When a starting pitcher is dominant, it’s common to say they “won the game by themselves.” This usually isn’t true, because you can’t win without scoring at least one run. Well, Jake Arietta took care of that, too: he failed to give up a run, and hit a solo homer. So yeah, he really did win this one almost entirely by himself.

He wasn’t just dominant, either: he was perfect through six, and it wasn’t luck. There weren’t lots of snagged line drives, or deep flies held in by the wind, or any of other things that usually accompany games where the Pirates don’t bang out at least nine hits.

If you’re looking for hope, you could probably find it in that the home field advantage at home plate seemed pretty evident: Arietta got plenty of borderline calls, and A.J. Burnett (who was decent and seems like he’s going to be useful for however much longer the season is) got squeezed. That figures to flip in PNC Park on October 7th. And while Arietta has completely owned us this year, generally speaking, the more you face a pitcher the better your chances are going to be, and we’ve faced him a lot. I’d still rather face almost anyone else in baseball, but home field and another look at him a little over a week from now should probably stop you from jumping off any bridges in a city full of them.

The Bucs still took the series and are still on pace for a ridiculous 99 wins. The Cardinals lost in dramatic fashion yesterday, so the distance remains three.

Filed under: A.J. Burnett, game recaps

Pirates at Cubs: Best Chance at the Series

09.26.15 Posted by

Liriano vs. Hammel, 1:05 PM

I’m not going to tell you tomorrow’s game against Jake Arietta isn’t winnable. The last time we faced him, we chipped away, kept the game close, and put ourselves in a great position to win before losing inexplicably in extra innings. We can do it again. But in any given game, you’re just playing marginal probabilities. And in all probability, if the Pirates win this series, it’ll be by winning today, rather than tomorrow.

The Pirates trot Francisco Liriano out to the mound. Liriano’s slowed a bit recently, because this is basically as many innings as he’s ever thrown. It’s easy to forget this in part because injuries the past couple of years kept his innings down, which may not have been much of a net negative. Liriano got knocked around in Milwaukee recently and there was open talk by management about managing his level of fatigue. Because of the starting pitcher glut (not that Jeff Locke is someone you absolutely, positively have to find room in the rotation for), along with high totals for Liriano and Cole and Burnett working himself back from injury, the decision was made to temporarily expand the rotation to line things up for the important games and give some guys a little extra rest.

For Liriano, it worked: he got an extra day of rest heading into his last start, and held the Dodgers to just two runs in seven innings, with nine Ks. He’s getting two extra days this time. Liriano throws against Jason Hammel, who the Bucs made quick work of the last time out.

While a top-of-his-game Gerrit Cole is the single most important thing to have right now, with the Wild Card looming, an effective Francisco Liriano is a big part of what lies beyond that, if anything.

The Pirates are 4.5 up on the Cubs with eight to play, which means a win today all-but-clinches a home Wild Card game. But a loss, with Arietta looming tomorrow, all-but-assures that we’re sweating it out the rest of the way. First pitch is at 1:05 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Cole Brilliant: Pirates 3, Cubs 2

09.26.15 Posted by

In the last couple of recaps of Gerrit Cole’s starts, I’ve talked about how the general way he’s pitching heading into the postseason might be more important than whether or not we actually win the games in question. That’s a little different now, with the Cardinals losing and the Bucs now just three back in the Central. But the Wild Card is still the most likely outcome, so as much as I enjoy the wins, I’m still more encouraged by the fact that Cole’s been pitching well down the stretch.

Occasionally, people have pointed out that, as frustrating as it is to win this many games and still be in second, it’s got to be pretty frustrating for the Cardinals to be on pace for 100 wins and still be sweating in the last weeks of the season. That’s a fair point (though the sympathy will only be warranted if they actually fall short for once). Allow me to offer a similar perspective shift: think about how terrified you are of Jake Arietta in the Wild Card game. Now imagine you’re the Cubs, knowing you have to face Gerrit Cole, who just shut you down at home. The Cubs are like spiders: they’re probably as scared of you as you are of them.

Even though the Bucs are three games back, they control their own destiny, because three of those games are against St. Louis. It doesn’t mean a lot to say that, because winning eight more consecutive baseball games is pretty much out of the question, but it’s a better position to be in than they were yesterday.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Pirates at Cubs: The Next Step

09.25.15 Posted by

Cole vs. Lester, 2:20 PM

When the Pirates clinched a postseason berth for the third consecutive year, every media outlet that reported on it noted that the celebration was muted. This is common when a team is made up of players who’ve reached this level before and have higher ambitions. Sip a little cham-pagn-ye and grip the next rung of the ladder.

The next rung, in this case, is making sure that playoff game is played in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have won two-thirds of their home games this year, so that would be a pretty big deal. And they’re in a very good position to make it happen: their sweep in Colorado has put them 3.5 games up on the Cubs for the first Wild Card spot, which means they’ll still be in line for a home game even if they’re swept in this upcoming series. That’s a nice place to be.

Not as nice is the fact that the Cubs are throwing both Lester and Arietta at us this series, so it’s easy to envision a series where the Bucs play pretty well and get swept anyway. But win this series and a home playoff game is all but assured. Heck, scrape out even one win and it still becomes pretty likely.

Ideally, we’d want to make up a game on St. Louis in this series so that a sweep against them in the next series (not that it would be easy) would bring us (finally) even in first. That’s a tall order against these pitchers, and this Cubs team, especially with St. Louis playing three against Milwaukee at home.

But, the games have to be actually played, and this Pirate team has shown time and time again they can play with anybody. Today, anybody is the Cubs. And it’s Gerrit Cole Day, to boot.

First pitch is at 2:20 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole