Sizing up the Pirates’ October hopes

For the first time in two decades, the Bucs have a shot.

As Labor Day morning is upon us, the standings tell us that the Pittsburgh Pirates are 1½ games behind St. Louis for the final Wild Card slot, with the Dodgers between them. That little space doesn’t seem like much, but jumping two teams into that spot will require someone to stumble — always a possibility — and a little luck on Pittsburgh’s side.

St. Louis has played well of late, though they haven’t blazed through August as much as they maintained the status quo. The Dodgers are still feeling out their new team some and have yet to rise or collapse under the weight of new expectations.

The Pirates, 7-13 in their last 20 games, have actually stumbled, and it’s the reason they’ve slid down to seventh in the National League after hanging out in either fourth or fifth with the Braves for a good chunk of the season.

But even with that, the idea of the Pirates being here is reason enough for celebration. Being a fan who has always enjoyed new teams rising through and mixing up the established order, it’s been a great season. Baltimore and Oakland have thrown much-needed wrinkles in the playoff picture in the American League, and the Washington Nationals are in first place for the first time since being ripped away from Montreal (Je me souviens).

The Pirates being merely a good team, however, is a bigger surprise than anything else baseball has had to offer. They seemed to be in the thick of the N.L. Central race last season, but shortly after the trade deadline it fell apart, and Pittsburgh was left with 19th consecutive losing season. If nothing else, it looks like this year means they won’t hit the dreaded mark of 20 straight seasons with a lopsided loss column.

Beyond the mere wins and losses, this has been a fun team to watch all season. Andrew McCutchen, for one, gives Pittsburgh their first legitimate star since Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke ruled Jim Leyland’s outfield. Their rotation is anchored by a rejuvenated A.J. Burnett, dumped on Pittsburgh for nothing by the Yankees, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens, the latter of whom has been immortalized by the folks at Productive Outs for his derpy derp face.

Clint Hurdle manages this bunch, one of the more positive managers to come out of baseball in recent years. He oversaw the Colorado Rockies amazing 21-1 in 2007, which started in September, vaulted the team into the Wild Card and eventually through the playoffs and the World Series. The ingredients, on paper and in the hearts of hopeful fans, are all there.

Growing up, the Fourth of July was always a good barometer of where things stood in baseball. If a team was in first place by the Fourth, then there was a 99 percent chance that that team would win the division, it seemed. Similarly, Labor Day was the day a fan could look at the standings and really say, “who’s going to the NLCS? Who’s playing who this October?”

With that, there’s not a lot for the cold, calculating fan to get excited for in Pittsburgh. They’ll need to play better than they have for the final month, and they’ll need two teams to tumble out of their spots for playoff baseball in the steel city to become a reality for the first time in 20 years. It’s not a lock.

But it’s not October yet, either. There’s a chance, and for the past 20 years, there hadn’t been a chance in Pittsburgh.


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