Although the Pirates are on MLB’s semester break as part of the All-Star game and related activities, the team actually finished its first half June 29 with a 3-1 loss in Milwaukee. Pittsburgh finished its first 81 games with a 39-42 record, earning them fourth place in the National League Central Division. The impact of an eight-game losing streak in mid-June was softened when the club won seven of nine and nine of 13 to end the first half of the 2019 season.
They were 22-8 in the first half against teams with losing records¸17-35 against winning teams.
The Bucs had sat in the division’s basement, five games out of first. But their mini uptick gave them the same record they had after 81 games in 2018. And last July’s hot streak showed that the team could get back into the race, which it thinks can happen again this year.
“We’ve had multiple opportunities during the first half to find out what we are capable of doing when it maybe wasn’t the way we thought we were going to do it,” manager Clint Hurdle told MLB.com’s Adam Berry. “From that standpoint, I still believe the best is yet to come.”
“We’re definitely still in it,” claimed Pirates rookie shortstop Kevin Newman. “We’ve had some really good comeback wins. I think it’s great for the team to know we have that in us,” Newman said. “We don’t just belly up and give up at the end of games. It kind of speaks to the mentality and grit that we have here.”
The optimism spouted by Hurdle and Newman has roots in reality as the team was still within striking distance of the other teams around them, five clubs which comprise baseball’s most competitive and toughest division.
No club has run away with the division. The Pirates withstood so many outfielder injuries that it called on J. B. Shuck to play there and stuck infielder Colin Moran in left field. Then came injuries to the starting rotation, as at least two starters appeared on the injured list at the same time and all five original starters spent time on the injured list. The bullpen thought it was throwing batting practice, as reliable relievers in 2018 were flops.
The first month of the season featured sub-Mendoza batters, but before being shut down in that 3-1 game, the offense scored 55 runs and clubbed 13 homers over the previous eight games.
Much of the offensive rebound was thanks to Newman and fellow rookie Bryan Reynolds and the bat explosion of Josh Bell, the Pirates’ lone All-Star when the initial rosters were announced on June 30.
Although Bell lost the popularity contest to start last night’s game at first to longtime Atlanta star Freddie Freeman, Bell’s peers voted Bell as deserving of the honor. Bell got 346 votes; Freeman got 272 in the players’ vote.
When this column was written, Bell was the only representative from Pittsburgh named to the squad, even though Hurdle had campaigned openly for closer Felipe Vasquez.
“He totally deserves to [be an All-Star],” Hurdle said.
“He’s been absolutely shutdown this year,” fellow left-hander Steven Brault added. “Obviously, the National League has a lot of really good relievers, so it’s hard to say he absolutely should be in, because there’s a lot of really good players. We know he’s an All-Star. He was an All-Star last year. He definitely deserved it this year. For whatever reason, he didn’t make it this year. But we all know. He’s our guy. He’s our closer. He’s our All-Star. It’s OK.”
Berry reported that Hurdle told Vasquez to “keep a bag packed.”
Which was a good move as it turned out, because “the Nightmare” was a late addition to the team because of injuries to other pitchers.
But everyone’s eye is on this Friday, when the Bucs resume their efforts to get into the post-season when they travel to Wrigley Field.
JIM SANKEY is a baseball columnist for The Allied News.