There are only six weeks left in the season and perhaps one of the season’s biggest surprises is that the Chicago Cubs are NOT running away with the division. In fact, the NL Central is the most competitive division in the entire league. The Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals are within striking distance of the Cubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are also in the picture, but are farther behind. The schedule provides them a chance to bounce back but recent performances and injuries could be a major stumbling block.
The Pirates have just finished a stretch of games against below .500 teams. It was a perfect opportunity to rise above .500 and gain ground in the race. Instead the Buccos went 9-10, continuing a season long trend of losing to bad teams (29-32). Multiple times the team has fought back to .500 only to go on a losing streak. It’s like the team is the Greek legend Sisyphus and rolling the boulder to the top is being above .500.
This past weekend they had a chance to catch up to the Cardinals and were only able to eke out a split. Now, Pittsburgh is 6.5 games behind the division leading Cubs and seven games behind for the second wild card spot. The schedule gets brutal from here on out but it also provides opportunity to gain ground in the division.
There are 37 games left in the schedule and only ten are outside of the NL Central (six of which are against division leaders). With 19 games left against division competitors, there is plenty of opportunity to make up ground. They also play the Cincinnati Reds nine more times, which would be a good for any team that isn’t the Pirates. Pittsburgh has lost seven of the nine games played against the Reds this year. If that trend isn’t reversed the Pirates are sunk.
While the Pirates aren’t quite experiencing the same amount of injuries as last year they are missing players in key positions. The most frustrating injury has to be the hamstring of OF Gregory Polanco. Just days after putting the outfield back together (Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Polanco) Gregory had to leave the game limping. The Pirates were forced to put players like Sean Rodriguez, John Jaso, and Adam Frazier in the outfield once again. Polanco was going on a tear at the time and the Pirates proceeded to lose games against bad teams like the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. Gregory came back from his injury played about a week and tweaked his leg again. While Polanco is struggling this season his absence hurts the team’s lineup, defense, and even thins the bench.
The other big injury the Pirates will have to deal with is the wrist of C Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli sustained another injury to the same wrist he hurt last year. For now, they are calling it inflammation. It has seriously sapped Cervelli of his batting ability and has even come into play on defense. Cervelli’s replacement is Chris Stewart who does an admirable job behind the plate but he doesn’t quite have the same quality of leadership. Stewart’s bat, on his best day, is still worse than Cervelli’s bat on a bad day. Cervelli will be coming back soon but it’s unlikely he’ll be 100%.
The Pirates are currently in a series with the best team in the MLB, the Los Angeles Dodgers. When they finish up on Wednesday, the Pirates will go to play 28 straight inter-divisional games. Cervelli will be back but Polanco’s return is questionable. Pittsburgh can make the NL Central real interesting but they’ll have to players step up in the absences of their teammates. Winning a playoff spot is a tall order but the schedule does provides the Pirates the chance to control their own destiny.