Sunday, August 07, 2011

What the heck happened to the pennant race?

Pretty simple, actually. It moved forward without the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Was it really just 10 days ago that the Pirates were 54-49, sitting in a tie for 2nd place, and just 1-1/2 games out of first place?

The standings tomorrow morning will show the team is now 54-59, sitting in 4th place, and 10 games out of first place.

Pittsburgh has lost 10 consecutive games and the first-half of the season dreams about the Pirates being part of the pennant race are gone.

The Philadelphia Phillies hammered the Pirates last weekend, outscoring the Buccos 23-12. However, the fears of a meltdown were blunted by a friendly schedule -- a 7-game home stand against the dreadful Chicago Cubs and the dreadful San Diego Padres.

More importantly, the Pirates newest players -- veterans Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, who were acquired in trades -- were with the team and ready to add much-needed power and run support to the lineup.

The Cubs stumbled into Pittsburgh and waltzed out with a 4-game sweep, scoring 24 runs and giving up 15. Then the Padres added to the misery with a 3-game sweep, scoring 35 times and giving up just 10.

Add up those numbers and you get a 10-game losing streak in which the Pirates have given up 82 runs (that's an average of more than 8 runs per game) and scoring only 37 (that's an average of less than 4 runs a game).

As is the case when dreams turn into nightmares, the finger of blame is being pointed in many directions.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is a convenient foil, especially considering he grounded into 4 double one game. For the season, he's hitting just .206 with 3 home runs and 14 runs batted in.

Pitcher Paul Maholm hasn't won a game since July 10. Pitcher Kevin Correia has won only once in his last six starts, while pitcher Charlie Morton has won once in his last seven starts.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. The bigger story is that the Pirates were not ready for prime time. A team projected to finish 5th or 6th in a 6-team division overachieved during the first half of the season. In doing so, the Pirates revitalized an otherwise disinterested fan base that was tired of almost two decades of losing.

The challenge now should be to right the ship (pardon the pun) and find a way to make this a winning season. Is that a reasonable goal?

To make it happen, the Pirates have to go 28-21 down the stretch. Considering that 38 of those games are against the other teams in the National League Central Division (which hasn't been especially strong this season), the opportunity to win is there.

But unless the Pirates generate more hits, score more runs and tighten up the pitching that served them well over the first four months of the season, then there will chance of winning 28 games.

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