‘Buctober’ returns as Pirates win

After a 20-year drought full of losing seasons and laughable playoff hopes, the Pittsburgh Pirates have now posted a winning season and playoff berth for the second consecutive season. Having already clinched a playoff spot, the Pirates are spending the last few days of the season fighting for home field advantage, either in the wild card game — where they have a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the top wild card spot heading into Sunday — or the divisional round, where they sit one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central (NLC) crown. Ultimately, with a Pirates’ loss, and Giants’ and Cardinals’ wins, Pittsburgh ended the year tied for the wildcard with the Giants, but will get home field advantage in the Tuesday wild card game due to their head-to-head record, going 4–2 against San Francisco in the regular season.

Coming into this season, the Pirates’ playoff predictions were mixed: the team is generally composed of the key players of last year’s luck-reversing squad. Normally, returning the same core after a playoff run would be cause for hope and optimism, but with glaring holes in both the lineup and rotation left unfilled, it was highly questionable with a cast of young, rising all-stars and cheap, discarded veterans.

One of the biggest concerns was the power void at first base, which was filled by former Minnesota Twin Justin Morneau last season after an August trade. But with Morneau signing with the Colorado Rockies in the off-season, the void was as present as ever.

Originally, the front office made a minor fix by trading for discarded New York Mets prospect/bust Ike Davis, but Davis continued to be an all-or-nothing hitter, with not much all and a whole lot of nothing.

Veteran Gaby Sanchez, who came into the season with at least a share of the starting first base job, has been forced to play more than the fans and probably the Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle, would have liked. Following a 2013 season where fans and the front office were unhappy with his play, prompting the Morneau trade, Sanchez’s numbers have dropped like a rock, going from a .254 to .231 batting average. The eventual solution would have never been predicted going into the season, as no one saw the rise of utility player Josh Harrison coming.

Starting the year in a platoon split in right field and biding time until super prospect Gregory Polanco was called up from the minors in June, Harrison played himself into an all-star appearance with both his offensive and defensive abilities, regardless of his position on the field.

When former all-star Pedro Álvarez struggled both in the field and at the plate, and spent some time on the disabled list (DL), Harrison took over the starting role on third base.

Álvarez slowly worked on the transition to first base where he would be less of a defensive liability. Unfortunately, Álvarez was diagnosed with a stress fracture in early September.

On the mound, the major question mark heading into the season was how to replace the production of former ace A. J. Burnett, who signed a high-priced contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in the off-season. The answer came in the form of Edinson Volquez, the former top prospect of the Texas Rangers,who has bounced around the league and the minors as his command and effectiveness came and went.

Thankfully, he was spot-on this year, leading Pittsburgh with 13 wins, a 3.04 earned runs average (ERA), and 140 strikeouts.

Furthermore, last year’s ace Francisco Liriano found his groove in the second half of the year, ending up with a very solid 3.32 ERA. With all of these changes and Liriano’s performance, the Pirates pulled everything together at the right time. All-stars Russell Martin and Andrew McCutchen have turned in career-best seasons, keeping the team afloat early in the year.

That being said, this team is not without major question marks heading into postseason. The formerly rock solid bullpen lost its mojo, prompting a desperate trade between the Pirates and the Los Angeles Angels in which they swapped failing closers: Jason Grilli from Pittsburgh to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. Frieri has imploded with the Pirates, posting an ERA over double what Grilli was at when the front office gave up on him.

Also, after a hot and cold start, Polanco settled more on the cold side and has never lived up to the miracle worker potential bestowed upon him by the media. He still has plenty of time to grow into his potential, but the odds of him significantly contributing to a playoff run in is slim.

No matter what happens in the playoffs, after 20 years without baseball in October, it’s a nice change of pace to not only be competitive but also make the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Who knows — maybe this is the start of a 20-year winning streak for the Pirates.