Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson (44) reacts after giving up a home run in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles June 7th at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo By: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports)
There is no better way to describe the current situation of the Pittsburgh Pirates than to say that they are squarely in baseball purgatory. And it must be hell for their fans.
How else could one frame it, after a recent 10-game run against division opponents that saw the Bucs go -- you guessed it -- 5-5? No, purgatory is where the Pirates are, and, judging by their flaws, exactly where they belong.
You can blame the bullpen for this latest stretch of enraging mediocrity.
Consider their series against the Chicago Cubs. A 4-3 lead entering the ninth inning of the opening tilt of a three-game set turned into a 9-5 defeat after Juan Nicasio played the role of Elmer Fudd to Chicago’s Bugs Bunny, needing a whopping six pitches to both surrender the lead and load the bases with no outs.
The Pirates took just one of three from Chicago, a team they are still trying to overtake for second place.
Consider their four-game set against the surprising, division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. In Miller Park, traditionally a Pirates house of horrors, the Bucs took the first two games of the series and were poised, with Ivan Nova pitching the series finale, to take at least three of four, which could have made a huge dent in Milwaukee’s lead.
Instead, the bullpen wasted a strong start from Trevor Williams, with Daniel Hudson giving up a game-winning two-run home run in the seventh inning. The Pirates lost the third game 4-3. Then Nova went out and threw too many decent strikes to a Brewers team fond of swinging at just about everything. The Pirates lost, backsliding into a disappointing split.
They took two of three from the St. Louis Cardinals, but that, too, could have been a sweep. But Chad Kuhl again failed to get through six innings of work, and the bullpen let another lead slip away. Notice a theme here?
For all the hardships the Pirates have endured this year, from Andrew McCutchen’s horrible start to the season, to Gregory Polanco’s horrible, well, entire season, to Jung Ho Kang’s persona non grata status, to Starling Marte’s suspension, no element of the team has failed as consistently or as spectacularly as the bullpen. Were it not for Felipe Rivero’s overwhelming dominance, the bullpen would be recognized as arguably the worst in the game.
Put it this way: Things are so bad that Jason Grilli is being bandied about as an arm worth checking out. Grilli, in case you’re wondering, has surrendered 17 runs in 20.2 innings with Toronto, has allowed a staggering nine home runs, and — while he's still in possession of his velocity — looks to be a guy not fooling many people any more.
The bullpen stinks, and what makes that even tougher to take is the fact that the rest of the NL Central does, too. If the Pirates’ relief corps was even good, not great — just good, they likely would be at the top of the division. Their competition is that bad. They would have a clear path going forward, would likely be buyers at the trade deadline, and would be thinking about making a push to finally guarantee themselves a playoff series without having to survive a wild-card game.
Instead, they are where they are. Because the division is so bad, they can’t even be sellers, despite starting Tuesday six games under .500. They can’t go full rebuild, and they can’t go for broke. They can just continue to muddle along, hoping that 5-5 stretches like the one they just ended turn to 7-3s, and fast.
I wouldn’t count on that happening. Not unless something drastic happens with their relievers. Maybe that means Kuhl and his power arm moving to the bullpen and thriving, or one of the guys they’re paying a decent sum starting to pitch like they’re worth it.
As things stand now, the Pirates will continue to be what they have been, a flawed team in a flawed division. Not good enough to get behind and not bad enough to write off. A team in baseball purgatory.
Sounds positively hellish, to me.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of 'The Starkey & Mueller Show" from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.