PITTSBURGH -- When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded veteran pitchers Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Niese for prospects at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, it surprised some people in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Were the Pirates, part of the three-team skirmish that made the National League Central so rigorous last season, giving up on 2016?
The Pirates were six games back for the second wild card at the time, twice as far back as the Cardinals, the other NL Central contender left in the Chicago Cubs' wake. Unlike Pittsburgh, the Cardinals clung hard to the hope of a sixth straight postseason berth and made just an additive trade at the deadline, acquiring veteran lefty reliever Zach Duke from the Chicago White Sox.
But in the two-wild-card era, selling doesn’t automatically correspond to bowing out. Even after losing a season-high six games in a row, the Pirates are just 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot. The teams play six more times this season, starting Monday at PNC Park.
Like another deadline seller, the New York Yankees, the Pirates are still hanging around on the fringe of contention. It could change the way teams view the trade deadline in seasons to come if one of these teams breaks through this October.
“Even though we’re at .500 and we’ve lost six in a row, we can do it,” Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen told reporters Sunday. “We can still pick ourselves up. We’re not out of it. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, right?”
They’ll have help soon, too. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang is expected to return from the 15-day disabled list Monday. Ace pitcher Gerrit Cole is considered about a week away from returning to the Pirates’ staff. A sweep at home this week -- or even a series win –- over the Cardinals could put the Pirates right back in the thick of things. The Pirates finish the season with three games against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, where wins have been far from automatic for the home team. The Cardinals have the sixth-worst home record (30-37) in baseball.
Despite playing one game under .500 since they traded those two pitchers, the Pirates are closer to a postseason berth than they were at the time. That, in part, is because the Cardinals, dogged by iffy starting pitching and trouble winning at home, have played precisely .500 baseball since then, leaving the Pirates to linger.
The also-rans in the NL Central got frisky and did their part to make this series interesting. The Cardinals lost three straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds going into Sunday before winning the finale at Great American Ballpark. The Pirates got swept by the Brewers over the weekend on the heels of a frustrating sweep by the Cubs.
Pittsburgh’s pitching staff has a 4.75 ERA and its lineup has averaged fewer than three runs per game over the last week. The Cardinals’ offense has become one-dimensional. They have homered in 23 straight games, a franchise record, but at times that’s their only path to home plate.
When the Cardinals woke up on Sept. 5 last year, they had a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL Central and they beat the Pirates 4-1 that day to extend it further. The Pirates would rebound and carve 4.5 games off that lead in the season’s final weeks before running out of time. Since then, the Cubs have taken dominion in the Central, knocking both teams from the postseason last October and then quickly building a virtually unassailable lead in 2016.
So consider this week’s series at PNC Park the battle of two teams itching to turn the tables on the Cubs this October.